Nevermind the margin, aided by four garbage threes in the last 35 seconds. Tennessee came into Gainesville and dominated #7 Florida. Again.
Florida hadn't lost at home all year. Over. Tennessee hadn't won on the road all year. Over. Tennessee hadn't scored 75 points since heavy competition began with the second Memphis game. Over. Players not named Renaldo Woolridge were 5 of 37 from the three point line in their last three road games. Over.
And for a season that many were forced to believe would end, at best, with settling for a third-tier postseason tournament we'd never heard of and putting an emphasis on the future? Tonight that's over too. Tennessee goes to 13-12, gets back even at 5-5 in the SEC, and could be in a four way tie for fifth place in the SEC by the end of the night, just a game out of third.
There were lots of ways to finish above .500 and hope the NIT called your name. But none would've helped Tennessee's RPI more than what they did tonight. Now the Vols need only a split in their final six regular season games to get above .500...and right now, a split might feel like a disappointment.
But more on where the Vols go from here in a moment. First, let's talk about how Tennessee imposed their will on the Gators for the second time this season.
The games really were remarkably similar. Tennessee had a banged up Jarnell Stokes this time, who had four points, two rebounds, and two steals in eleven minutes. The Gators were without Mike Rosario and lost Will Yeguete early in the contest, but let's not de-emphasize this win just because Florida was without their sixth and seventh leading scorers.
Both times, Tennessee broke away midway through the first half with key inside play and selective, clutch three point shooting. Both times, the Vols went ice cold midway through the second half. But both times, the Vol defense made sure the Gators did nothing about it.
Today, Tennessee made one shot from the 12:29 mark to the 6:00 mark. Jeronne Maymon added a pair of free throws, but the Vols scored just four points in six and a half minutes. But during that same span, Florida made just one shot. The Gators went 0 for 5 with a pair of turnovers and a pair of missed front ends on 1-and-1s. And Tennessee's lead was never truly in jeopardy. The Vols led 65-51 with 2:25 to play before the game got stretched out with garbage threes and free throws.
Florida shot 41.7% from the floor and 11 of 30 (36.7%) from the arc. But Tennessee's defense still made a difference in forcing 15 turnovers and keeping Florida far away from the offensive glass - the Gators had just five offensive rebounds on 28 missed shots, and three of those came in the final minute.
That, of course, was mostly the work of Jeronne Maymon, who turned in a 15-11 performance despite shooting just 5 of 14 from the field. Jordan McRae, who was big in the first half, added six rebounds and a dozen points. In the Knoxville game, Cameron Tatum had nine but Skylar McBee didn't attempt a shot. Today, Tatum didn't attempt a shot but McBee had a baker's dozen. The Stache was 4 of 7 from the arc and 1 for 1 in taunting the Gator student section.
Balance was again the name of the game: in Knoxville, six Vols had at least seven points. Today, six Vols had at least six points, including the one who may be most responsible for the outcome: Trae Golden, with 17 points and 7 huge assists. The Vols didn't just beat Florida with tough defense, they played a very high IQ brand of basketball on the offensive end, breaking the press and finding the open man with the extra pass more often than not, with Golden leading the way.
But again: everybody contributed, and the Vols continue to be at their best when that's the case. We get nothing from Tatum and almost nothing from Stokes...and we dominate.
Bruce Pearl came in and changed the Florida rivalry with flat out domination: the Vols won eight of the first nine meetings with Pearl and Donovan on the sidelines, including 3-1 against Florida's dual National Champions. But at the end of Pearl's run, Donovan got it back with four straight wins. Tennessee was still right there last year against an Elite Eight Gator squad, losing the two regular season games on the final possession. But this year under Cuonzo Martin, Tennessee has simply done exactly what they wanted to do to what everyone believes is a very good Gator team. Twice. Neither of these games was close, neither of them a fluke.
Tennessee is dominating Florida in basketball, again.
Mandatory Reality Check in the Epilogue
Because some of you will say, "Hey, what about the NCAA Tournament?"
So here's a good swift kick to that question: had the Vols won the overtime games against Memphis and Georgia and not lost the Austin Peay debacle, Tennessee would be 16-9 (6-4) right now, and yeah, we'd be talking tournament. To say nothing of close losses to Pittsburgh, Mississippi State, and Kentucky. While the margin doesn't always matter, every game does count in this thing.
But at 13-12, the question now isn't the NCAA Tournament. I'm not saying it's impossible, I'm simply saying it's easier to win three or four games in New Orleans than to complete the sort of run it would take to earn an at-large bid at this point. So please, let's not talk about Tennessee's NCAA resume right now. Let's talk about Arkansas.
That's who comes to town Wednesday night in what becomes an incredibly important game. Not only are the Vols playing to improve their NIT chances, they're playing to climb the SEC ladder...and the Razorbacks, who also cannot win on the road, are their most direct competition in both races. It's also a nice little showdown for Cuonzo Martin and Mike Anderson in a battle of first year coaches.
Today, the goal is not this tournament or that tournament. It's get better. That goes through Arkansas on Wednesday night, at home where the Vols play very well with what should now be a really good crowd.
Tennessee is on a roll. I'm interested to see how far this roll can take us. But in this thing, you're only as good as your latest win. Tonight, the Vols are very good, and we should all enjoy this. Come Wednesday, let's keep it rolling.