NASHVILLE, Tenn. - His team led by a dozen at halftime Thursday, but Florida coach Mike White was far from content with how the Gators were playing, especially on the defensive end. Vanderbilt had shot a dismal 32.0 percent through the first 20 minutes and knocked down just three of 15 shots from the 3-point line. No matter. That second number got White's attention because the Commodores, he knew, were a much better long-range shooting team, having come into the Southeastern Conference Tournament with the third-best shooting percentage from long distance.
And they were getting way too many wide-open ones.
"Coach White told us we were playing with fire," sophomore guard Tre Mann said.
Sure enough, the flames ignited, as Vandy backup guard Trey Thomas dropped a trio of 3s in succession to give the Commodores the lead midway into the second half. The Gators, as they've done all season, made things interesting for themselves, but eventually brought a little heat of their own - on offense, led by Mann, and defense, collectively.
Mann scored 22 points, including 16 in the second half and nine over the final eight-plus minutes, as fifth-seeded UF not only withstood the 13th-seeded Vandy barrage but stopped it cold over the final four minutes for a 69-63 victory in second-round play of the SEC Tournament. The win, which snapped a two-game losing streak, advanced the Gators (14-8) into Friday afternoon's semifinals to face No. 4-seed Tennessee (17-7), which roughed UF up but good in a 65-54 home victory at Knoxville in the regular-season finale for both teams Sunday.
Worth noting: Mann did not play in that game against the Volunteers. He was a morning scratch due to a migraine.
He was back Thursday and terrific.
"Tre's an all-league player," White said of Mann, who was named to the All-SEC first team earlier in the week. "It will help us and give us a better chance, but it doesn't guarantee us anything."
No, but they probably aren't playing Friday without him.
UF, with Tre Mann (headband) in the middle of it all, huddles up with a late celebration with Thursday's second-round victory over the Commodores.
On a day when White benched starting guard Tyree Appleby (along with reserve guard Scottie Lewis) for being late to a morning walk-through at the team hotel, Mann continued his torrid pace of late by hitting seven of his 12 field-goal attempts and seven of eight free throws to go with team highs of seven rebounds and six assists, with just one turnover. He's averaged 20.7 points and shot 64.4 percent from the floor over his previous four games.
"I see him playing with a lot of confidence," said junior shooting guard Noah Locke, who scored 11 of his 13 points before halftime, with a trio of 3-balls, to help stake Florida to a 12-point advantage. "He could always play that way, but he's going out and playing with a clear mind and playing his game. I look at him now and see him playing free and not thinking about any of the negative things he might have done."
Mann went 4-for-5 in the second half, saving his biggest field goal for last. UF was clinging to a one-point lead, 64-63, after Vandy's unflappable and phenomenal point guard Scottie Pippin Jr., who led all scorers with 23 points over 37 minutes, sank a pair of free throws with 1:40 remaining (he went 25 of 25 from the line over his team's two tournament games, including 10-for-10 against UF).
At Florida's end, Appleby missed a jumper, but forward Colin Castleton wrestled the rebound for a second possession. Fifteen seconds later, Appleby was off on another shot, this time a 3, but Mann was there for the offensive board and another shot-clock reset.
This time, the Gators ran clock, with Mann dipping to the free-throw line, then stepping back for a clutch jumper with 50 seconds left to push UF ahead by three. At the Commodores' end, Thomas missed an open 3 and the long rebound went off of Vandy and out of bounds to the Gators.
Mann made one of two free throws with 28 seconds left for a four-point cushion, and after Pippin misfired on a driving layup attempt, the ball went out of boards to UF and Appleby knocked down two free throws with 12.8 seconds left to seal the win.
Vanderbilt guard Scottie Pippin Jr. (2) kept pressure Anthony Duruji (4) on the rest of Florida defense all game, with his ability to penetrate and score, find open teammates or draw fouls. He finished with 23 points and was 10-for-10 from the free-throw line.
None of it would have been possible without the Florida stiffening late defense; or perhaps with some element of fatigue that might have set in for a Vandy team that played in Wednesday night's first-round game, though if that was the case it took a while.
After Thomas bombed those back-to-back-to-back 3s, the Commodores stood at 60 percent for the second half, including 6-for-10 from deep. Their actions using flare screens - and either Pippin's ability to find the open man in penetration or Vandy's ball rotation - got wide-open looks.
"Once we got a couple timeouts and we kind of talked about it, it was kind of easier to contest the three," Mann said.
UF's defense forced Vanderbilt into missing 11 of its final 12 shots, including the last six over the final four-plus minutes and finished at 36.8 percent for the game, just nine of 31 from the arc. Florida hit at 47.2 percent on the day, but just six of 19 from 3. The Gators had a spell during the second half when they were too loose with the ball, but ended up with just 12 turnovers, their fewest in seven games, versus 15 assists, their most in eight games.
"It wasn't great," White said of his team's defense and ball security, "but it was better."
Good enough to keep playing.
In March, nothing else matters.