We're in a unique time as Tennessee fans, which is going to make us quick to point out that today was more fun than any day in 2011, and make us wonder how many more games like this might be out there because we're certainly used to winning in basketball.
But the best way to appreciate this one is to let it stand on its own, by itself, for at least a moment.
Florida was the fourth best scoring team in the nation coming in, at 85.4 points per game. They had only scored under 70 once, 68 points at now-#1 Syracuse. They got 56 today. Their lowest shooting percentage was 41.2% against Arizona. They shot 35.7% today.
This wasn't luck. It was everything we wanted to believe about Cuonzo Martin and his style of basketball.
Changing up the starting lineup to put Josh Richardson and Renaldo Woolridge on the floor instead of Jordan McRae and Kenny Hall, the Vols played stellar defense from buzzer to buzzer. At halftime with the Vols up 33-29 and Florida shooting just over 40%, I feared the Gators would shoot better and the Vols would play worse defense away from their bench. Instead, Tennessee played even better on the defensive end in the second half - helped, no doubt, by the dulcet tones of Cuonzo Martin, passionately encouraging his troops from the other end of the floor. The Vols forced 15 turnovers, turning away the Gators every time they threatened.
And on the other end, the team that shoots threes and hopes for the best? Not today: the Vols took only ten, made half of them, and made sure everyone - everyone - was involved. You want balance? Kenny Hall 13, Trae Golden 12, Jeronne Maymon 12, Jordan McRae 10, Cameron Tatum 9, Josh Richardson 7. Add in a deuce from Renaldo Woolridge and Wes Washpun, and the Vols shoot 51.0% from the floor. The Vols got nothing from Skylar McBee...and blew Florida out.
The move to insert Richardson and Woolridge paid on the defensive end, but it also certainly appeared to inspire the guys whose spots they took. While the Vols relied on their best players in the first half, with Trae Golden and Jeronne Maymon each turning in ten, Kenny Hall and Jordan McRae came alive in the second half when Florida adjusted. It was Hall who sparked the key run in the first portion of the second half that allowed the Vols to push the lead from four to sixteen - he scored seven straight points from 13:09 to 10:51 in the second half. With Tennessee banging inside - 13/5 from Hall, 12/7 from Maymon, six rebounds from Swipa - and forcing turnovers, opportunities were also there for the three ball, which Tennessee knocked down at critical moments: following Hall's surge, Cameron Tatum knocked down his only attempt to push the lead to fifteen at 9:14, and then you knew it was real.
Then for the next eight minutes, Tennessee hit only two shots.
But Florida hit none.
It was that span that proved the Vols have what it takes: when the offense dries up, turnovers pop up and panic could set in, the Vols simply manned up and played sensational defense on every single possession. Florida got four free throws in that span, and that was it. As Cuonzo has said before, shots will come and go, but what you can control is your defensive effort. And Tennessee played harder and better today than they have all season, by far.
This is a huge, huge, huge win - not for what it does for any postseason hopes or anything like that, but for right now, for this moment. Tennessee fans have felt sorry for themselves for more than a year. Tennessee's basketball team lost Bruce Pearl and has been through some rough growing pains with Cuonzo Martin through the non-conference schedule.
But this isn't like the football wins over Cincinnati or Vanderbilt. This is a really good win over a really good team, not one the Vols squeaked out or lucked out, but dominated playing their brand of basketball for all forty minutes. If what we saw today is this team's real identity - not shoot threes and hope for the best, but play hard and accept the challenge (more Cuonzospeak) on defense every possession, and play together on the offensive end? We're going to love getting behind this basketball team. And if they play like this, more wins are out there.
We haven't even discussed Jarnell Stokes yet, but how big was it for Cuonzo and these players to get this win before the highly-touted recruit from Memphis suits up? Now all Vols - players, coaches, fans - know they don't have to put it all on a freshman and hope for the best. This team, without Stokes, just dominated an elite Florida team. This team with Stokes? Well, now we have more liberty to go only at the pace he's capable of.
This is one to be very, very proud of. I'm so happy for Cuonzo and I'm so happy for all of our kids. And you bet, I'm happy for us. We're all happy. This one's been a long time coming. I last sang "IT'S GREAT....TO BE...." walking out of Neyland Stadium after the Vanderbilt win. But there was a little sarcasm in there, knowing who it was we had beaten and how we can't really say we've done anything because we beat Vanderbilt again.
But this is real. And it's real good.