Tennessee trotted onto the Thompson-Boling Arena floor Wednesday wearing its alternate 'smokey grey' uniforms, yet most of the smoke inside the gym came from the hot shooting hands of the Vols.
Senior point guard Kevin Punter racked up 26 points, 18 of which came in the first half, and Tennessee built an impressive 23-point lead over Florida in the first half that turned into an 83-69 win. The victory snapped a Vols' four-game losing streak to the Gators and three-game SEC home opener streak, and it started right out of the gate with the most impressive first half Tennessee has turned in this season. The Vols shot a whopping 51.3 percent from the floor, led by Punter – who went 7-for-8 and 3-for-3 from behind the arc — and freshman Admiral Schofield, who turned in 15 first half points on 7-of-11 shooting.
There was virtually nothing Florida could do to stop the onslaught. The Gators could simply watch as Tennessee dominated the offensive glass, shut down big men John Egbunu and Dorian Finney-Smith and choked them out offensively to build a commanding lead.
“That was the best 20 minutes we have played all year on both ends of the court," Rick Barnes said. "We were really being aggressive and swarming on the defensive end. We kept our offense moving and we really played a terrific first half."
Tennessee was able to do it with one of the smallest lineups Barnes has ever utilized, starting five guards to open the game against a much bigger roster. Barnes has toyed with the idea before, but this time he decided to insert Admiral Schofield in place of a true starting center, and it paid off. The Vols outscored Florida in the paint 32-24 and recorded five blocks despite being overmatched in size.
"We knew they would show their pressure. We wanted to have some ball handlers there, and we knew that we could open up the court a little bit," Barnes said. "[Florida coach] Mike [White] does a really nice job with his team. They're aggressive. They defend ... We didn't really decide what we're going to do until this afternoon."
That decision included starting Robert Hubbs, the Vols slashing wing whom Barnes said would likely come off the bench before giving him the starting nod. Hubbs, who is coming off arthroscopic knee surgery in December, ended the night with 12 points and nine rebounds.
“It just show how good we are," Hubbs said of the win. "We can score the ball and play defense when we want to. We just have to keep that confidence up and go in with that same mindset on Saturday.”
The win also showed just how successful Admiral Schofield can be in an offense when Punter is in his groove and can create opportunities for other scorers. The freshman finished with 17 points and eight boards in his most complete performance at Tennessee and showcased what type of nucleus the Vols have with their freshman class.
Tennessee will stay at home Saturday when it takes on No. 21 Texas A&M in hopes of continuing its undefeated record in Thompson-Boling Arena on the season. If the feeling in the locker room is anything like what surged through it Wednesday night, it's a definite possibility.
"It was just a different type of focus in the locker room," Schofield said. "Usually everyone's trying to focus I think a little too hard, but tonight, we were just a little looser enjoying it and when it came to game time, everything just clicked for us."