Midway through the second half of No. 1 Tennessee’s Saturday afternoon matchup against Florida, Admiral Schofield grabbed a missed shot and slammed it through before flexing in front of a roaring, checkerboard-clad student section.
Moments later, Grant Williams got a put-back of his own. Finally, on the Vols’ next possession, Williams found a streaking Schofield for an alley-oop that sent a sold-out crowd of 22,261 into a frenzy.
Altogether, it was that kind of day for the Vols (22-1, 10-0), as Williams and Schofield combined for 30 points, 12 rebounds and five assists in Tennessee’s 73-61 win over the Gators (12-11, 4-6) at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The win gives Tennessee its 18th straight victory, and it also secures the longest winning streak of Rick Barnes’ 32-year career as a head coach.
When asked about what the streak meant to him, especially considering the way his team is playing, Barnes gave all the credit to his players and assistant coaches.
“I think you guys know how much love we have for this team,” Barnes said. “The fact of the matter is, I just say ‘let’s win the next one.’”
Barnes also said that he doesn’t allow himself to stop and savor the moment, but he wants his team to do exactly that.
“I want these guys to enjoy what’s happening,” he said. “I’m probably not the easiest guy to let that happen.”
While Tennessee ended up with the win, Florida started off strong. The Gators jumped out to a 6-3 lead that grew to 8-7, but two Jordan Bowden free throws, a dunk from Kyle Alexander and a 3-pointer from Bowden gave Tennessee a lead that the Vols quickly extended.
But the Gators weren’t done yet.
After a layup and subsequent free throw from Grant Williams put Tennessee up 32-16, the Gators mounted a 14-4 run to draw within six at halftime.
After the break, an Andrew Nembhard layup with 17:37 left cut the Vols’ lead to four. But a bucket from Alexander and back-to-back 3-pointers from Lamonte Turner put the Vols back at a 12-point advantage.
“We were fortunate to be down just six at halftime, so we thought we could clean up some stuff defensively and be right there,” Florida coach Mike White said afterward. “But they came out with energy and in rhythm, and you can’t try to trade buckets with those guys.”
The Gators continued to chip away, and a Noah Locke 3-pointer brought Florida within seven midway through the final period.
Then came the sequence from Schofield and Williams, and from that point on, the Vols’ lead was never in doubt.
With five minutes to go, Bowden hit two consecutive 3-pointers to give the Vols a 19-point cushion.
The junior finished with 13 points, five rebounds and two assists, and Barnes was quick to note his impact off the bench.
“Jordan Bowden, he’s a worker,” Barnes said. “He’s playing good basketball. He’s got better days ahead of him.”
Throughout the matchup, Tennessee leaned on a defense that White commended after the game.
“I think versatility, discipline, toughness are words I use to describe both sides of the basketball for these guys,” White said. “They’re all very strong. Their guards can muscle you, and their bigs can move their feet.”
White’s analysis was correct, as the Vols outmuscled Florida to net 49 percent of their shots in the paint.
Tennessee also held the Gators to 21-of-59 shooting on the day, while the Vols made 28-of-53 from inside the arc with six connections on 18 attempts from 3-point range.
Barnes was still quick to chide Tennessee’s rebounding, though, as the Vols nabbed 31 boards to Florida’s 33.
Now, he said that his team is looking more and more toward postseason play, and the fourth-year Tennessee coach also praised the Vols’ fans for making Thompson-Boling Arena such a tough environment for opponents.
“I think they’ve been locked in,” Barnes said. “I think they realize that teams are getting better, and we’ve got to get better. They know we’ve got to get better… That’s what happens with everybody this time of year.”
“I think our fans have embraced these guys, which is great,” Barnes continued. “There can’t be a better setting in the country than what we have here right now. It’s awesome. I really appreciate our fans, and I know our players do, too.”
Up next, Tennessee will look to defend a staunch home-court advantage.
The Vols welcome South Carolina on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. (SEC Network) before traveling to fifth-ranked Kentucky on Saturday.
Tip against the Wildcats is slated for 8:00 p.m., and the game can be viewed on ESPN.
Featured image courtesy of Jake Nichols.
Edited by Christian Knox