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Jan 14, 2024 8:18 pm

No. 5 Tennessee, Florida look to keep pace in competitive SEC

Tennessee and Florida have seen how competitive the SEC season is going to be this season.

Three games into the conference schedule and only two teams in the conference haven’t lost a league game.

The No. 5 Volunteers (12-4, 2-1) and the Gators (11-5, 1-2) are among nine teams that are either 2-1 or 1-2 as they prepare to meet Tuesday night in Knoxville, Tenn.

Tennessee, which lost 77-72 at Mississippi State on Wednesday, built a 14-point lead in the first half at Georgia on Saturday but saw the Bulldogs roar back to take an 11-point lead in the second half.

Tennessee was able to prevail 85-79.

“I think in this league you can expect this pretty much every night,” Vols coach Rick Barnes said of the competitiveness.

Dalton Knecht had a team-leading 36 points, including a 3-pointer that put Tennessee ahead for good with 1:56 remaining.

Barnes said Knecht, a senior transfer from Northern Colorado who fell one point shy of tying his career-high, relishes big moments — which will come in handy during the SEC gauntlet. Knecht spurred the Vols’ 21-4 run to finish the game.

“You can just tell he’s got a little bounce about him,” Barnes said. “He likes the moment. He does.”

Knecht has scored at least 20 second-half points in each of the last two games.

Tennessee’s victory ended Georgia’s 10-game winning streak, the fourth-longest in school history. The Volunteers’ victory over then-No. 22 Ole Miss in the SEC opener ended the Rebels’ 13-game winning streak to start the season, which had tied a school record.

Florida doesn’t have a lengthy winning streak, but the Gators did break through in conference play with a 90-68 victory against visiting Arkansas on Saturday.

That came after a heartbreaking 87-85 home loss to then-No. 6 Kentucky in the SEC opener on Jan. 6 and a poorly played 103-85 loss at Ole Miss Wednesday.

“It was an opportunity where I knew we would learn a lot about our team and our guys,” coach Todd Golden said. “I feel pretty confident in saying we have a really good team, but we had nothing to show for it in conference play, so far.”

The Gators hope that sophomore guard Riley Kugel’s improved performance against the Razorbacks — 20 points off the bench — is a sign of things to come.

Kugel scored a career-high 25 points against Baylor in late November and followed that with 24 points against Wake Forest.

But then he hit a poor stretch for seven games and things bottomed out in the loss at Ole Miss as he went scoreless while playing just four first-half minutes and Golden sat him for the entire second half.

Golden sat down with Kugel the day after that game to get “on the same page” and predicted that he would play better against Arkansas.

“We’re on the same page now,” Kugel said.

“We met and made sure we had a good understanding of what the expectations were moving forward,” Golden said. “It was just kind of a reset, recalibration. It was needed. It happens. These are long seasons. Things can go up and go down.”

–Field Level Media

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