The win secured Florida's fourth SEC East title in seven years under Kevin O'Sullivan. It was the third SEC title for the Gators under O'Sullivan, tying him for the most conference titles of any coach in school history.
Florida was one out from being forced to clinch its conference championship on Friday. With Tennessee leading 5-4, Casey Turgeon advanced to second base with two outs after a ground out. Harrison Bader followed by lining a double over the right fielder's head, tying the score at five.
"That ninth inning was something else," O'Sullivan said on the postgame radio show. "Bader's at-bat was really big. He stayed on the ball and went the other way. A lot of good things tonight. Can't say enough about our guys. They battled. It's very difficult to play in this league, but to win an SEC championship, I feel really good about our guys. What an accomplishment."
It was Bader that made things happen again two innings later. The sophomore center fielder reached on a one out single, and after a pop out by Taylor Gushue, the Florida coaches put Bader in motion. He stole his third base of the night, but Tennessee catcher Tyler Schultz's throw was wide and went into center field.
Bader jumped to his feet and went to third. Tennessee center fielder Vincent Jackson misplayed the ball, allowing it to skip by him. Bader scored easily to give Florida 6-5 lead.
"The ball hit off Bader and skips into center," O'Sullivan said. "I thought he'd just get into third. The center fielder mishandled it and Craig pushed him home. We were just trying to get that one more run."
For the bottom of the 11th, O'Sullivan brought in freshman left-hander Kirby Snead to face the top of Tennessee's lineup. He got a weak ground out and strikeout from the first two hitters before allowing an infield single. O'Sullivan made a trip out to the mound before Snead faced a right-hander, but he got a fly out to end the game.
Snead wasn't one of the well-known recruits in Florida's No. 1 recruiting class. The left-hander doesn't come close to 90 mph with his fastball, but he's tough on left-handers and has managed to get outs all year. His appearance on Thursday moved his ERA down to 1.99, walking just two hitters in 31.2 innings pitched.
"What can you say about Kirby Snead? He's been great for us all year, but you're on the road with a chance to clinch at least a share of the conference title, and they've got top of the order and he gets it done," O'Sullivan said.
The Florida offense scored half of its runs on one swing. After back-to-back singles by Braden Mattson and Zack Powers, freshman designated hitter Pete Alonso hit a long three-run home run to left field. Powers later provided a two-out RBI double to tie the game at four.
The offense hasn't always been pretty this season, but they've done enough to get by and win 20 games in the SEC.
"We've got different elements to our offense," O'Sullivan said. "It's not the prettiest offense, but people have been saying things about our offense the whole year. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is how many runs you score.
"The at-bat that Bader had, that's what this team has been about. They clutch up, stick their nose in there and have great at-bats when they need them."
And when it was over, the Gators got to celebrate with every college player's dream. Florida dog piled on the mound at Tennessee, celebrating their share of the conference title. One more Florida win or Ole Miss loss will make the championship Florida's alone, but Thursday's celebration secured the third conference title in the last seven years.
"It's no disrespect to Tennessee," O'Sullivan said about the dog pile. "Our program puts a lot of emphasis on winning the SEC championship. If you get a chance to win a ring in this league, we're going to celebrate. Our players deserved to have a moment like that."
Game two of the series will begin at 6 p.m. on Friday. Florida is expected to throw freshman left-hander A.J. Puk.