KNOXVILLE - It was the kind of hustle play that possibly could save a season. It certainly helped save Tennessee during its frantic first half against No. 3 Florida on Tuesday night.
Yet another Big Orange free throw clanging off the rim, UT's Jarnell Stokes ripped a rebound out of the arms of the Gators' Will Yeguete, spun to his right and dropped a soft half-hook through the net. After trailing by eight early, the Volunteers suddenly led 28-26 with 5:01 to play in the opening period. The lead would grow to six a little less than four minutes from halftime, the final flurry of a 10-0 run.
But the Gators hadn't entered Thompson-Boling Arena on a 15-game winning streak for no reason. During the final media timeout of the opening period, UF coach Billy Donovan pulled his team close and said, "That's the best shot they're going to throw at us. We can weather this."
By halftime the Vols led by only one (34-33) despite having hit 62.5 percent of their first-half shots from the field to just 36.4 percent for Florida.
"I was really encouraged at that point," Donovan said. "Normally that would be a recipe to be down 12 or 16. But we were within one."
Said Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin: "They'd punched us. Now we wanted to push back."
And so they did, much to the chagrin of 18,009 Volniacs who ignored the threat of snow only to watch the Gators win 67-58, dropping the Vols to 15-9 overall and 6-5 in the Southeastern Conference heading into Saturday's trip to Missouri.
"It takes the wind out of your sails," said senior guard Jordan McRae, whose 17 points trailed only Stokes' 20 points and 11 rebounds among Big Orange highlights. "This was a great opportunity."
Some believe it was their last, best opportunity to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee that hasn't seen much to impress them so far. Of the Vols' remaining seven regular-season games, their two contests with Mizzou figure to be their only chances left to produce eye-opening wins. And even the Tigers stand only 4-6 in league play heading into Thursday's visit from Arkansas.
This isn't to say Tennessee isn't good enough to make the Big Dance. Or, more importantly, last a round or two once there. Its blowout victory over visiting Virginia trends better daily, what with the Cavaliers looking like the second best team in the Atlantic Coast Conference behind nationally No. 1 Syracuse.
There's also a win over Xavier on a neutral court and an impressive road victory at LSU.
But the Bayou Bengals have their own bubble trouble, Xavier is far from special and the Vols also have those troublesome home losses to Texas A&M and North Carolina State to explain away.
"Beating a team like Florida would give [Tennessee] some breathing room," ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes said before the opening tip.
Yet breathing room is what Donovan's Gators take away. They swarm and storm as if they're playing seven on five. Such fury and focus led to a 67-41 rout of the Vols the first time these two met. No one would have been completely shocked if a similar final had arrived this time.
But Kansas had beaten Kansas State also by 26 the first time they met this winter. When the Jayhawks visited K-State on Monday night, the Wildcats prevailed in overtime.
So there was realistic reason to hope. Especially when Stokes completed a three-point play the old-fashioned way to pull the Vols within 55-54 with a little more than four minutes to go.
But then UT turned it over.
And UF's Michael Frazier hit a 3-pointer from Maryville to leave UT four behind with 2:48 to play.
"Can you make winning baskets when it's tight down the stretch?" Dykes said. "Tennessee really hasn't shown me that all season."
Nor would the Vols from that point forward. Instead, Wilbekin rattled home a triple from straightaway on the possession after Frazier's trey.
"That Wilbekin 3 over Josh [Richardson] was tough," McRae said. "That one hurt."
Richardson's earlier blown dunk hurt as well. And the eight missed free throws in 17 attempts. And the 18 offensive rebounds the Gators corralled to win the backboard war 39-32.
Suddenly the visitors led by seven with 2:24 remaining. Gradually the crowd faded into the cold night, certain that the Vols were out of breathing room to launch a comeback.
And quite possibly out of breathing room for UT coach Cuonzo Martin to reach his first NCAA tourney in his third season on the job.
"I wouldn't say every game left is a must-win," Stokes said. "But we definitely need to win some games."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.