'An event'

When Bruce Pearl spoke to Rocky Hill Elementary students on Friday, his message was clear.

``I want my players to be the best people they can be, the best students they can be and the best players they can be,'' Tennessee's men's basketball coach said.

Then, he asked the students what they should expect from his team against No. 2 Florida.

``Win, win, win,'' they shouted.

`No, no, no,'' Pearl said. ``We expect to play our best and hope that's good enough to win.''

Saturday night against the undefeated Gators, the Vols' best was good enough. Tennessee upset the nation's No. 2 team 80-76 before 24,011 fans at Thompson-Boling Arena. It was the first time UT beat a second-ranked team since 1993 (Kentucky). And it was UT's first win over a No. 2 team that wasn't Kentucky since 1959.

The Vols did it in a most improbable way. They did it with point guard C.J. Watson on the bench after fouling out with 2:53 left. They did it on a defensive gem by offensive-minded Chris Lofton. They did it by outrebounding the much taller Gators. They did it with the help of Jordan Howell's first college free throw. They did it by outscoring the much deeper Gators' bench 29-14.

And they did it with Dane Bradshaw making what he called the ``toughest two-footer'' of his life.

Bradshaw knew what was at stake when he took a lengthy pass from Lofton with 20 seconds left. He knew it could mean victory over the last remaining unbeaten team in college basketball. And he knew it could mean a probable NCAA Tournament berth later in the season.

Bradshaw bobbled the pass and had Florida's 6-9 Al Horford bearing down from behind. Bradshaw quickly banked in the layup for the deciding points.

The win was the first for UT when one of its star guards didn't shoot well. While Lofton was doing his best Kobe Bryant – 29 points with five 3-pointers – Watson hit just 1 of 8 from the field.

In Tennessee's three losses this season – to Oklahoma State, LSU and Memphis – either Lofton or Watson has had a poor shooting game. Against Florida, it didn't matter.

Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl thanked everyone from his players to the fans to coach Phillip Fulmer to coach Pat Summit.

UT students camped out – in the rain, no less – the night before to get a prime seat to watch a men's basketball game. Was it really for the first time since the rock's cooled?

Pearl helped feed them pizzas hours before the game.

Summitt gave Pearl an orange and white tie to wear to the game. It proved to be a lucky charm.

And the victory proved to be a scene unlike many others in Knoxville.

Bradshaw Lofton and Andre Patterson entered the interview room with stained jerseys. Why? They were hugging UT fans who had body paint. The fans stormed the court after the game to celebrate. One guy rolled his wheelchair to near midcourt to join in the fun.

Bradshaw was asked if he was hugging a man or a woman.

``A man,'' he said, sheepishly.

Such a celebration accompanies a fine from the SEC, which has a no-tolerance policy for fans rushing onto the court after a game. The policy was pushed, ironically, by Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, who sat on press row as his team fell from the unbeaten ranks.

Dr. John Petersen, UT president, didn't seem too concerned about the penalty. The cost of victory over Florida: Priceless.

The scene at Thompson-Boling Arena: Priceless.

Consider this: Only 779 students showed up to watch Florida beat Tennessee in Knoxville last year. Saturday night, more than 4,200 students were in the not-so-cavernous-anymore arena. In its two home games, the Vols have averaged over 4,500 students. Last year, only twice did UT attract as many as 1,000 students for a home game.

The difference in revenues from ticket sales, concessions and souvenirs from last year's Florida game (15,000 paid attendance) and to this year's: $100,000-plus.

``Men's basketball has become an event,'' said Craig Pinkerton, UT men's basketball publicist.

Indeed it has. The Vols are averaging over 16,000 in attendance, which easily ranks in the top 10 nationally. With Vanderbilt and Kentucky remaining on the home schedule, the average could climb to 16,500. Tennessee hasn't averaged 16,000 in attendance since the 1991-92 season.

Tennessee (12-3) is now in prime shape to earn an elusive NCAA Tournament bid. The Vols are among the top 10 in RPI with two wins over Top 10 teams (No. 2 Florida, No. 6 Texas). They are 3-1 in SEC play with Mississippi State and South Carolina next up.

If the Vols go 9-7 in SEC play and win 18 games overall, they are a virtually lock to get an NCAA bid. If UT goes 8-8 in SEC play and wins 17 games, a high RPI could land them a berth. Remember, Georgia made it with a 16-win season five years ago.

They key is to go no worse than 6-2 at home.

If the Vols can hold serve at home, Pearl will be serving more pizzas.

And Tennessee might be paying more fines for fans storming the court.

NOTES: Tennessee defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, who declared for the NFL draft then contemplated returning to UT, signed with agent Albert Irby, who represents former Vol Darwin Walker. … Lady Vols coach Pat Summit, who recently got her 990th win, was asked if she would coach as long as Joe Paterno: ``Please don't let me.'' … Only four NBA coaches have 1,000 wins: Lenny Wilkins, Larry Brown, Don Nelson and Pat Riley. … The UT cheerleaders and dance team finished second in the nation competition in Orlando while Smokey was seventh in the Mascot ratings.

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