"Is this really what we wanted?"
Thanks to the high arc of Scotty Hopson's shot, I had enough time to get all of those words out of my mouth...before he proved that yes, that contested jump shot was exactly what we wanted coming out of a timeout with the game on the line.
It was unquestionably the biggest shot of Hopson's two year career, even by his own admission. But more than that, just the fact that the Vols went to #32 with everything on the table shows that the distance between Hopson's potential and his reality is getting shorter and shorter.
On his postgame show, Bruce Pearl talked about the decision to put the ball in Hopson's hands for the game-winning jump shot, a choice made in part because of the way Florida had been playing Wayne Chism. But regardless of the factors that went into that choice, Pearl's final answer was to give the ball to Hopson.
Teammates, coaches, media and fans have all chimed in on Hopson's process. We all saw flashes in his freshman season. We all believed that Hopson was the difference between a pre-arrest Tennessee team being good and great. And we all knew that without Tyler Smith, someone else would have to be counted on with the game on the line.
Sometime was today, and Hopson delivered.
And yet, without J.P. Prince, he never would've had to.
It continues to be the best and worst of times for Prince. Because without his 12 points and 7 rebounds, the Vols would've never had a chance to win. Prince was in on several key putbacks, and played a big role in the Vols' +15 rebounding margin in the second half. Tennessee had the opportunity to win because of J.P. Prince.
And at the same time, Prince had three turnovers, the most costly of which came with the Vols up 57-55 in the final two minutes. That came the possession after Prince fouled Chandler Parsons on a three point attempt. And all this comes two weeks after Prince fouled Terrico White in a four point play in overtime during the Ole Miss game, a swing that put the Rebels up one in the final minutes.
We are winning because of J.P. Prince. And sometimes, we are winning in spite of him. Why won't you let us love you, J.P.?
The good news is, while Prince is Prince (from another really good piece from Mike Griffith this week) and allows his emotions to get the best of him at times, while also making some mental mistakes at crucial junctures...he has absolutely stepped up his play when the Vols have needed him the most. He may frustrate at times, but he too has matured on the floor in the last month:
- First 11 games: 19.5 mins, 5.4 pts, 2.1 rebs
- at Memphis: 18 mins, 12 pts, 5 rebs
- Last 8 games: 27.3 mins, 10.6 pts, 4.3 rebs
Prince has doubled his production in the aftermath of the January 1 arrests. While there may be technical fouls and complaints about calls that don't go his way, Prince also brings a vital presence to both ends of the floor for the Vols. When Tennessee has needed him to step up, Prince has responded.
The performance we saw today is indicative of what Tennessee is capable of down the road. The nucleus of Bobby Maze, Wayne Chism, plus Hopson and Prince, is a talented group that can play with anybody. The Vols beat Florida because they got great play from their best players: Chism, Prince and Hopson combined for 38 of UT's 61 points, while Bobby Maze was instrumental in keeping Florida's backcourt of Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton in check (5 of 20 combined).
And Tennessee got just enough from its role players. The Vols don't need all of them to contribute every night, and today Kenny Hall played his worst game of the season (1 point, 2 rebounds, 5 missed free throws). But the Vols did get seven combined steals from Steven Pearl and Melvin Goins, the return of McB43, and an additional key three pointer from Renaldo Woolridge. And in what I hope is a sign of things to come, Cameron Tatum was very solid with 8 points and 5 rebounds in 15 minutes.
Your best players doing their thing and your role players doing just enough will allow you to survive a game where you shoot 38.5% from the floor and 33.3% from the line (a free throw percentage that deserves anything but victory). There is still enough talent and enough heart on this team to make things interesting, as we enter the final ten games of the season.
More was asked of J.P. Prince, and he has responded. And Scotty Hopson was asked to be the man for the very first time, and today he responded. Hopson in particular still has room to grow. But when these two join Chism in leading the way, these Vols are still capable of achieving all of their goals.