Only three days removed from playing the longest game in school history, many questioned how fatigued the Vols’ legs would be heading into their ever-important game against No. 8 Florida.
NCAA tournament dreams loomed. The Thompson-Boling Arena stands were packed. And signs of fatigue were few and far between on Tuesday night.
The Vols displayed plenty of energy from start to finish as they held on to a late lead and managed to pull off an upset win against the Gators.
Jordan McRae had yet another strong performance as he poured in 27 points and seven rebounds for the Volunteers.
The Vols were down late in the first half, but a 12-3 run sparked by two big McRae 3-pointers allowed the Vols to regain the lead by halftime.
Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin has watched McRae’s game and maturity grow as the season goes on.
“I think he is one of the best scorers in the conference," Martin said. "I do not look at those numbers but you saw what happened tonight, he is a guy who knows how to score. The growth of Jordan McRae as he is scoring is he is taking good shots. Scorers take questionable shots. When you look at those shots last year and earlier in the season, when he takes good shots his shoulders are square, his follow-through is there, he can put it off the glass. He is taking better shots."
The players fed off the crowd’s energy as nearly 20,000 fans packed in Thompson-Boling arena to cheer on the Volunteers.
“I think the crowd was definitely loud tonight. They came out and they really wanted us to win. The Vols have one of the best fan bases in the countryI think the crowd was definitely loud tonight. They came out and they really wanted us to win. The Vols have one of the best fan bases in the countryTennessee forward Jarnell Stokes,” Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes said.
The Volunteers (17-10, 9-6 SEC) smothered Florida (22-5, 12-3 SEC) in the second half, limiting them to only 10 percent from behind the arc, as they finished with a 4 for 17 effort from three point land for the night.
The Gators' scored only 58 points against the Vols which ties a season-low scoring total.
Coach Martin admitted that limiting the three-point shooters of Florida was the focus of his team’s game plan heading into Tuesday’s matchup against the Gators.
“For us, the game plan to beat a team like that, with the parts they have on the perimeter and Patrick Young, they have to beat us with twos," Martin said. "Now you give up a lob and you give up a little bit but you've got to keep those guys off the three point line because that's where they make their money knocking those three points down and dribble penetrating so they might get a couple layups, they dribble penetrate a couple times, got to the rim. We'll take a couple of those as long as we keep them off the backside and getting those threes."
Stokes added eight points and 14 rebounds, six of them being offensive, as he won the big man battle down low against Florida’s star center Patric Young.
Florida did a good job limiting Stokes’ offensive game, but they had no answer for him on the boards.
“I mean I just want to play every game the same way. Young is definitely a stronger guy than most guys I go up against," Stokes said. "I think that sort of limited my scoring a bit. I think they did a good job double teaming. I mean guys hit shots, so my thing today was just rebounding and I think I did my role."
Stokes closed the game out as he grabbed a missed lay-up attempt by Jordan McRae and converted the and-one-play to put Tennessee up 61-54 with less than a minute left in the second half.
“I actually thought we did a really good job on him defensively, we guarded him very, very well," Florida head coach Billy Donavan said. "I thought the difference in the game was the rebounding part of it. We had a couple of times that we had some guys around him and he’s obviously a big strong guy. I’ve made this comment before; the best part of his game in my opinion is that he has great hands. We you have that kind of body, when the ball gets in his hands he grabs it, and I think that’s his greatest strength. He doesn’t have great lift around the basket, he struggles to score when there aren’t a lot of angles, but when the ball is loose and he gets his hands on it, that’s what he does best."
Florida guard Mike Rosario scored a team high 16 points for the Gators, but a late charging call off a Trae Golden turnover thwarted all hopes the Gators had for a comeback.
“I don’t know...the refs were calling it up and down all game, I didn’t know what the call was going to be,” said Rosario.
The Volunteers are now on a six game winning streak, but head coach Cuonzo Martin doesn’t want any talk of the NCAA tournament quite yet.
“We need to celebrate this win tonight and then do everything in our power to beat a talented Georgia team," Martin said. "That is just the way it is. I cannot go any farther than that because you just do not know. When you look at this team and you say is this one of the 68 teams? Without a doubt, but you have to do your job. For us, I say we have to keep it out of someone else's hands. Let’s control the situation."
The Vols will head out on the road for their final two away games of the season beginning with a March 2 meeting at Georgia this Saturday at 1:30 p.m.