KNOXVILLE — The faces on the floor, the places in the Southeastern Conference standings and other circumstances surrounding Tennessee and Florida men’s basketball games change every season.
But those winding roads almost always dead-end at a UT block party.
A Scotty Hopson jumper in the closing seconds preceded an Alex Tyus runner than rimmed out just before the final buzzer, and UT celebrated a wild, 61-60 win that kept the 14th-ranked Vols relevant in the SEC Eastern Division race.
UT coach Bruce Pearl improved his career record against Billy Donovan to 8-1 — a mark made all the more stunning by the number of close games between the Vols and Gators the past five seasons.
Five times in the past five seasons, UT and Florida have played games decided by five points or less. The Vols have won all five.
“Those guys are always good, and we always have to battle them, but we just keep getting it done,” said UT senior forward Wayne Chism, whose career record against the Gators is 6-1.
UT snapped a two-game losing streak by ending Florida’s four-game winning streak.
More specifically, the Vols (16-4, 4-2 SEC) beat the Gators (15-6, 4-3) with a terrific second half of defense and rebounding.
Florida grabbed 20 of the game’s first 30 rebounds, but the Vols pulled down 30 of the last 42. Hopson, seconds after hitting a tough, fade-away jumper to push UT back in front, sprinted down the court to corral the rare Tyus miss and dribble out the clock.
“We write it on the board in the locker room every day, and we talk about it all the time: Defense and rebounding win championships,” Pearl said. “We’ve talked about the fact this roster is going to look ugly sometimes on the offensive end, but you can’t let those struggles affect how you defend or whether or not you get back in transition.
“This game was won and lost on the boards. Period. The end. It was won and lost on the boards.”
Florida seized control early and gradually built a 32-22 lead with 2:11 left in the first half. The Vols responded by crashing the offensive glass and cutting their deficit to 34-28 at the break.
“We lost our identity a little bit the past couple of games, and we kept telling each other at halftime that we had to get it back,” Hopson said. “We had to stay up, keep fighting and play better on the defensive end, and we got better in the second half.
“Sometimes you just don’t make many shots as a team, but you can always play good defense and get rebounds.”
Tennessee's Kenny Hall, left, Cameron Tatum (23), Renaldo Woolridge (0) and Steven Pearl, behind, celebrate their 61-60 win over Florida in an NCAA college basketball game with Scotty Hopson, center, after Hopson hit the game-winning basket Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
Chism canned a 3-pointer to start the second half, and the Vols, but both teams struggled offensively until freshman guard Skylar McBee’s 3 put UT back in front with 12:15 left.
The Vols, despite holding Florida to 36 percent shooting and a frosty 1-for-10 from long range, never led by more than five points. And when clutch shooter Chandler Parsons connected for the Gators’ only second-half 3, the Vols trailed 60-59 with 29.1 seconds left.
UT could have ended the drama well before that, but the Vols started 2-for-10 from the free-throw line. Chism converted twice with 41.7 seconds left, but the Vols still finished at a paltry 4-for-12. Most teams shoot better than that from behind the arc.
“Those two I made at the end were big, but obviously we weren’t very good again for most of the game,” Chism said. “We work hard on (free throws) every day in practice, but for some reason we’ve been missing them in games. I don’t know what’s going on there, but we need to start making those.”
UT wasn’t flawless down the stretch. Senior wing J.P. Prince gave Parsons three free-throws after fouling him behind the arc with 1:37 left. Parsons made just one, though, only narrowing Florida’s deficit to 57-55.
“That put the ref in a tough spot, because everybody knows that great shooters just fall on the ground,” Prince said. “And when they fall, basically every ref is going to call it. It was a tough spot, but I just told Chandler, ‘That was a good play.’ That was a nice veteran move, falling like that.
“I gave him credit, but at least he missed two of the free throws. Then I told him, ‘The ball don’t lie for you, though.’”
Parsons atoned for his foiled freebies moments later, though, after Prince turned the ball back over to the Gators. Parson re-tied the score with a driving layup, and he answered Chism’s free-throws by hitting a 3 in the big man’s face.
“He’s been putting (defenders) on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays all year, and he almost did it to me today,” Chism said of Parsons’ try. “At least I got my hand in his face, but he made the shot, anyway, because that’s what good players do.”
The Vols got their final break on the game’s last possession, when Tyus — who had been 7-for-10 from the floor — missed a clean look from the rim’s shadow.
“Alex Tyus got probably about as good a look as you could expect ... but the ball did not go in the basket for him,” Donovan said. “Hopson made a great shot, and we made a great pass, but we just did not convert on our last play.”
Donovan has said similar words on several occasions in this rivalry’s recent history.
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