ATLANTA — Tennessee slipped into the uncomfortable position of wait-and-see mode after being eliminated from the SEC men’s basketball tournament on Friday night.
Florida (25-6) dealt the Vols (19-14) a knockout blow in the second round at the Georgia Dome, scoring an 85-74 victory in its third win of this season against UT.
Tennessee, with an RPI of 31 entering the contest, has been projected by most prognosticators to make the NCAA tournament for what would be a school-record sixth straight season.
UT has been penciled in as an NCAA at-large selection that could receive anywhere from a No. 6 to No. 10 seed come Sunday night, when the NCAA brackets are released.
Still, there’s a reason it’s called March Madness, and the Vols’ seven losses in their past 11 games won’t impress the tournament selection committee.
“I still feel we are a team worthy of the (NCAA) tournament based on our strength of schedule (No. 2), our RPI, and our wins over top 50 (eight) and top 100 (12) RPI teams,’’ UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “I think our ball team can be dangerous . . . we’ve demonstrated we can beat anybody on our schedule.
“Today, we just couldn’t beat the best team in our league.’’
The 12th-ranked Gators received the SEC regular-season championship trophy from league commissioner Mike Slive prior to tipoff.
Kenny Boynton’s 22 points paced five Florida players who scored in double figures, and the Gators shot a blazing 58.7 percent from the field.
UT freshman Tobias Harris led the Vols with 25 points, and Scotty Hopson scored 19 for SEC East No. 5 seed UT, which played East No. 1 seed Florida in the SEC tournament for the first time since 1989.
The Gators got it done with a 56-point second half that saw them make 14 of 17 shots (82.4 percent).
Florida opened the second half on a 7-2 run, erasing a five-point halftime deficit, and took the lead for good when Vernon Macklin (15 points) hit a hook shot at the 11:47 mark to make it 52-50.
Macklin’s hook — Florida’s eighth basket in its first 10 second-half attempts — sparked a 7-0 run that included a technical foul on Pearl. Macklin closed the run with a basket in transition that made it 57-50 with 10 minutes remaining.
“It was a bad technical, a very bad technical, and it really hurt our team,’’ Pearl said. “I felt that Steven Pearl had driven, and I thought he got fouled, and I said I thought he got fouled.’’
Pearl instructed his son to seek out the official and show him his visibly swollen hand during the timeout after the technical.
UT center Brian Williams, who had a game-high 12 rebounds in 27 minutes in his second game back from a Feb. 26 back injury, said the foul discrepancy at the start of the second half was pivotal.
“They got to the foul line whenever they very well pleased,’’ Williams said. “That 9-2 foul advantage at the start of the (second) half was key. It made us tentative and Florida took advantage.’’
The Gators connected on 24 of 33 free-throw attempts in the second half, and the Vols didn’t get closer than five points in the final 10 minutes.
Hopson scored 17 of his 19 points in the second half, but his scoring was mitigated by seven turnovers.
“I was just rushing it at times when I knew the play was there for me,’’ Hopson said. “Sometimes it was forced, sometimes it wasn’t.’’
Tennessee ended the final 8½ minutes of the first half on an 18-2 scoring blitz to take a 34-29 lead into halftime.
Harris had the hot hand early, scoring 18 of his career-high-tying 25 points in the first half on 8-of-10 shooting, including a 3-pointer that closed the scoring before intermission.
While Florida advances to play the winner of Friday night’s late game between Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, the Vols will nervously await Sunday night’s NCAA tournament selection show.
“My ears are wide open like everyone else’s,’’ said UT senior Josh Bone, who made his third start of the season after replacing Cameron Tatum in the starting lineup. “It’s just a matter of us getting in. No one in this locker room is scared to play a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed.’’
Williams, a senior, said he expects the Vols to get a lower seed than projected.
“Everyone in this program knows we’re not going to get the kind of seed we want, because we haven’t gotten good seeds when we have had great seasons,’’ Williams said. “Just getting in the tournament will be a blessing, and everyone will be grateful for that.’’