This story was updated Jan. 14, 2019, at 6:50 p.m. with more information.
KNOXVILLE — Saturday evening in a key spot, the Tennessee men's basketball team showcased an advantage over its opponent that had nothing to do with size, speed or ability.
It's been an edge the Volunteers have proven again and again throughout this season, namely against Louisville, Gonzaga, Memphis and now Florida: experience.
The Vols trailed 38-35 at halftime Saturday in Gainesville, Florida. The Gators had hit nine 3-pointers and had controlled the game for the most part in the first half. The second half the Gators hit only seven shots total, making 28 percent of them, and turned the ball over six times — four in the final 6:13. They were 1-for-7 from the field during that stretch, the only basket a KeVaughn Allen jumper thata cut the Tennessee lead to 67-65 with 3:35 remaining.
While the Gators struggled to create and make quality shots, Tennessee shot 58 percent from the field in the final 20 minutes in an eventual 78-67 Southeastern Conference victory.
Riding a 10-game win streak, the third-ranked Vols (14-1, 3-0) host Arkansas (10-5, 1-2) Tuesday night at 7 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
During a key part of Saturday's game, the Vols had three guards — Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner — on the court, along with forwards John Fulkerson and Grant Williams. All have at least three seasons of experience in the program.
"It's what coaches talk about, getting older and having that type of experience," coach Rick Barnes said at his Monday news conference. "Where you see it is during timeouts, when they come to the bench and they're locked in, they know. Against Florida, we ran an isolation for Grant and he scored it. We came back and were talking, and he said, "Let me have the ball and I'll make the right play.' That's where I think experience shows up."
Fulkerson had come in for Kyle Alexander after the latter had picked up his fourth foul with 7:04 remaining and the Vols trailing 58-56. By the time guard Admiral Schofield — who also battled foul trouble — came back in with 2:07 to play, Tennessee led 69-65 and the 6-foot-5 Schofield put the game away just over a minute later with a 3-pointer from the right corner.
Unlike most teams in the country, Tennessee doesn't have to worry about putting a freshman in one of those key spots. Fulkerson is the only non-upperclassman in that group, and he's a redshirt sophomore with 54 career games of experience. It's why Barnes had no issues playing Fulkerson in such a tight situation and why Schofield was locked in once he got back in.
"We know what Admiral had meant to our team, but prior to him going back in, John Fulkerson was playing great. He was doing some big-time things for us out there, and you could tell he was locked in," Barnes said. "Late in the game we knew we needed Admiral out there because we needed another scorer on the floor, but we're thinking about that — do we really leave Admiral on the bench and keep Fulky out there with both playing so well?
"Obviously we did the right thing there. Grant saying, 'Let me have the ball there and I'll make the right play,' and he did. That's where the experience really starts to show up: Whether this guy can make the shot, or that guy can make the shot, they were all on the same page knowing this is what we want to do."
Barnes addressed Saturday's postgame celebration in which no fewer than five Tennessee players were seen doing the Gator Chomp immediately following the final buzzer. Some national media spoke against the Vols, with NCAA.com correspondent Andy Katz tweeting, "This is a potential title team, but there is no need for this. Just walk off with a road win. That alone sends a loud message."
After the game, Schofield suggested that there were some "inhumane" things said toward the Vols before and during the game, prompting the team's reaction.
"First of all, let me tell you we're not perfect," Barnes said Monday. "I'm not perfect; our guys aren't perfect. That's the first thing I addressed after the game. I don't like it because I want the focus to be on the main thing: When those things happen it's going to be talked about, but also I understand I'm not out there an hour before the game when the student body is. I'm sure things are being said, but we're telling our guys they need to control their emotions during the game and when the game's over, let it out.
"It happens. Do I like it? When I was a kid I probably would have. Now I'm a coach and I'm older, I just want to play the game. I want our guys to learn from it: Understand emotion, understand competitions. When you're out there a good hour before the game, you can hear a lot — it's part of what makes college basketball what it is. Some people call it friendly competition, but competition and emotions can run high at times."