Opportunity knocked, and Tennessee answered. Behind a terrific first half from Jordan McRae and 14 man-sized rebounds from Jarnell Stokes, the Volunteers knocked off the #8 Florida Gators 64-58 Tuesday night in Knoxville.
Florida went on an early 9-0 while ESPN's viewers were still in Minnesota, taking an early lead and threatening to take the air out of a raucous crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena. But Tennessee answered. Two of the Vols primary scorers, Jarnell Stokes and Trae Golden, were forcing up bad shots, combining to go 3-13 from the field and 0-2 from the line in the first half. But Tennessee answered.
In the first half, the answers were mostly from McRae, who shot 7-10 on his way to 17 halftime points--he had a game-high 27 as the only Vol in double-figures--leading the Vols on a late 7-0 run to seize a 35-32 halftime lead after trailing for most of the first 20 minutes.
In the second half, it was all muscle. The Gators went on a quick 5-0 run to take a 37-35 lead, and as Jarnell Stokes picked up his third foul, things were looking grim for Tennessee. But then McRae made a dunk in transition. And Golden drove for a layup. And McRae got fouled shooting a three. And Kenny Hall made a dunk. After an 8-0 run, the Vols were back on top 43-37, their biggest lead of the ball game.
Florida's Mike Rosario hit a clutch three that cut the lead to 43-40 and seemed as though it would turn the tide back towards the men in blue. But Tennessee answered. Florida scored on each of its next four possessions. But each time, Tennessee answered. For the rest of the second half, the Gators got no closer than three points.
A tired Florida squad playing with a short bench started missing shots, and Tennessee got the rebounds. They would finish with a 40-29 edge on the glass. A Florida team that was whistled just twice in the first 19 minutes was called for 15 fouls the rest of the way as Tennessee repeatedly drove the lane and got the tough points.
But Florida wasn't the only tired team. Tennessee, who played a memorable 4 overtime marathon in College Station Saturday, started forcing bad shots and hitting front iron. Trae Golden's three at the 7:45 mark to put the Vols up 56-48 was the last UT field goal until the final minute of the game. And to make matters worse, the Vols were just 6-13 from the free throw line, and with two minutes left, the Gators had cut the lead to four.
But when an exhausted Jordan McRae missed a driving shot with 58 seconds to go, Jarnell Stokes grabbed the biggest of his 14 rebounds. And he put up a shot. And he made it. And he got fouled. And he made the free throw. And Tennessee, after not scoring from the field for six minutes and 50 seconds, had a seven point lead. It was all over after that, and 55 seconds later, the Vols walked off the court with a 64-58 win over a hated rival.
A Tennessee resume barely clinging to the bad end of the bubble got a marquee win over a team that has been dominant for most of the season. And an orange-colored rivalry with the Gators stayed that way. Cuonzo Martin moved to 3-0 against Florida, and the Vols moved to 11-5 in the series since 2005, with three of the five losses coming in Bruce Pearl's final year.
This doesn't finish the run to an NCAA tournament bid. It probably doesn't even put the Vols on the right side of the bubble. But it makes tournament talk realistic as long as Tennessee keeps winning. The next one is in Athens on Saturday. Go Vols. Beat Georgia.