By STEVE MEGARGEE
AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Florida’s smothering defense returned to form just in time for the third-ranked Gators to keep their winning streak going.
After falling behind in the first half due to Tennessee’s strong shooting, the Gators stepped up their defense down the stretch and won 67-58 Tuesday night for their 16th consecutive victory. Florida also beat the Volunteers in Knoxville for only the second time in its last nine attempts.
Florida had allowed opponents to shoot just 38.4 percent in its first 22 games of the season before Alabama shot 55 percent in a 78-69 loss to the Gators on Saturday. Tennessee shot 62.5 percent in the first half Tuesday, but the Volunteers made just 29.2 percent (7 of 24) of their attempts after halftime.
“We didn’t press a lot in the first half,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “The game I thought for us just got kind of stagnant. … We wanted the game going up and down the floor, to really get into a racing game, and I thought we pressed predominantly most of the second half. We didn’t turn them over a lot, but it was just disruptive in terms of flow.”
Scottie Wilbekin had 21 points and six assists and Michael Frazier II added 11 points for Florida (22-2, 11-0 SEC). Wilbekin and Frazier both made key 3-pointers down the stretch to put the game out of reach.
Jarnell Stokes had 20 points and 11 rebounds for Tennessee (15-9, 6-5), which was seeking a victory over a highly ranked opponent to boost its NCAA tournament hopes. Jordan McRae had 17 points and Josh Richardson 13.
When the teams last met, Florida routed Tennessee 67-41 in Gainesville on Jan. 25 to hand the Volunteers their most lopsided loss in Cuonzo Martin’s three-year coaching tenure. Tennessee shot 26.8 percent (15 of 56) overall and 1 of 19 from 3-point range in that game.
“We knew we were a better team than that first game anyway, (even) while it was going on,” Richardson said. “We came out and played as well as we could today, and they just outplayed us.”
Tennessee fired up the crowd by having the players walk through a walkway in the Thompson-Boling Arena stands to get to the floor, allowing fans to greet them on their way. The student section behind one basket waved orange glow sticks as Tennessee’s starting lineup was introduced.
That atmosphere might have caused the Vols to get a little too amped up early on. After a basket by Stokes gave the Vols an early 2-0 lead, Florida went on a 10-0 run by scoring seven points off five Tennessee turnovers in the first 4½ minutes.
But once the Vols settled down, they capitalized on their strong shooting to pull ahead. Tennessee outshot Florida in the first half but only led 34-33 at halftime because of Florida’s ability to force turnovers and grab offensive rebounds.
“I was really encouraged coming into the half, just for the fact we’d shot 36 percent from the field and they shot 62 and we’re down by one,” Donovan said. “That’s generally a recipe where you’re down by 12 to 15.”
The shots Tennessee was making in the first half stopped falling after halftime as Florida grabbed a seven-point lead.
The Vols got back into the game by stepping up the intensity on defense even as their own shots weren’t falling. Tennessee cut the lead to 55-54 on Stokes’ three-point play with 4:32 left and had the ball with a chance to take the lead after McRae blocked Wilbekin’s shot.
It was the type of scenario that could have caused the Gators to start thinking about their recent history of frustration in this building. Instead, they created a different finish this time.
Tennessee forward Jeronne Maymon committed his eighth turnover of the night, leading to Frazier’s 3-pointer that extended Florida’s lead to 58-54 with 3:32 remaining. Wilbekin, who had missed his first five attempts from behind the arc, also drained a 3 just more than a minute later to pretty much seal the victory.
“I think it has a little bit to do with experience,” Wilbekin said. “Four seniors (in the starting lineup). It’s been a while since we’ve had four seniors on the team. Just stepping up, making big plays on the offensive side and on the defensive side especially, staying locked in and not letting up in the last moments of the game.”
No. 4 WICHITA STATE 78
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS 67
WICHITA, Kan. — Ron Baker scored 19 points, Cleanthony Early added 18 and Wichita State overcame a sloppy start to beat Southern Illinois and remain unbeaten.
Tekele Cotton and Darius Carter added 12 points apiece for the Shockers, who became the first team to start 26-0 since Memphis in 2008. Wichita State has five games standing in the way of becoming the first team since Saint Joseph’s in 2004 to have a perfect regular season.
The Hawks didn’t lose that year until the Atlantic 10 tournament.
Wichita State (13-0 Missouri Valley Conference) certainly had its hands full, especially with Southern Illinois guard Anthony Beane. He scored 25 points, getting to the rim at will until late in the game, when the Shockers finally started to double- and triple-team him.
No. 19 TEXAS 87
OKLAHOMA STATE 68
AUSTIN, Texas — Javan Felix scored 27 points, making six 3-pointers and Texas rolled to a win over Oklahoma State, which played its first game without suspended star Marcus Smart.
Smart sat out the first of a three-game suspension by the Big 12 for shoving a Texas Tech fan. Without him, the Cowboys never had a chance.
Felix scored eight consecutive points that pushed Texas’ lead to 22 early in the first half. The Longhorns (19-5, 8-3) led 54-33 at halftime despite playing without leading scorer Jonathan Holmes, who sat out with a knee injury.
Smart, who averages 18 points, will miss games against Oklahoma and Baylor before returning for the Cowboys’ rematch with Texas Tech.
Le’Bryan Nash led Oklahoma State (16-8, 4-7) with23 points.
No. 15 Michigan 70
No. 22 Ohio St. 60
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Nik Stauskas scored 15 points and Derrick Walton III added 13, including three critical free throws with 1:55 left, to power No. 15 Michigan to a 70-60 victory over No. 22 Ohio State.
The victory ended a nine-game losing skid over the last 11 years in Columbus for the Wolverines (18-6, 10-2 Big Ten), who came into the game tied for the top spot in the conference with Michigan State.
Walton added 10 rebounds and six assists. Zak Irvin chipped in with 10 points.
LaQuinton Ross had 24 points and Lenzelle Smith Jr. 13 for Ohio State (19-6, 6-6), which had a three-game winning streak snapped. The Buckeyes hadn’t lost to their archrivals on their home court since a 61-50 setback on Jan. 15, 2003.