Simply Amazing

Just when I didn't think Bruce Pearl could surprise me anymore, he pulls another stunner.

Sure, Tennessee had routed Texas, rallied from 15 down to win at South Carolina, upset No. 2 Florida in Thompson-Boling and won at Rupp Arena.

But there was no way No. 10 Tennessee could beat 12th-ranked Florida in Gainesville. No way. The Gators would extract revenge from an earlier defeat in Knoxville and pull within one game of the Vols in the East Division race.

Billy Donovan would put Corey Brewer on Chris Lofton. The Gators would be more patient on offense and exploit an inside height advantage. They would be better prepared to handle a press that helped force 19 turnovers in the first meeting.

Despite all that, the Gators still lost.

Tennessee's 76-72 victory before the Rowdy Reptiles clinched a share of the East Division title and the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament for the Vols, ensuring a first-round bye.

Amazing stuff isn't it, when you consider Tennessee was picked by most to finish fifth in the East? Amazing stuff when you consider the Vols' inside limitations. Amazing stuff when you consider not one player on the team has been to an NCAA Tournament wearing a Big Orange uniform.

Dane Bradshaw, the heart and soul of this resurgent group of Vols, turned in the play of the game.

With 18.8 seconds left and the game tied, Florida had the ball at mid-court. Pearl had a vision. He inserted 6-10 Major Wingate for 6-2 JuJuan Smith to guard Brewer's inbounds pass and told his team to go all out for a steal.

``Florida had a rhythm on offense and I didn't want them getting into a half-court set,'' Pearl said. ``During the timeout, I figured they'd talk about how to run a play and not how to inbound the ball. So, let's press.''

Bradshaw stole the bounce pass, made a spin move on Taurean Green and converted an awkward layup for a 2-point lead. It was the second time in two games against Florida that Bradshaw scored the game-winner on a layup. And it was the second time the victim of the steal was Brewer.

``That just shows you how aggressive his style is,'' Bradshaw said of Pearl. ``Most coaches would drop back on defense, try to make the stop and go into overtime. He said, `Major, get the deflection, we'll steal the ball and win the game.'''

It worked just as Pearl had hoped. And Bradshaw punched another ticket for ESPN's SportsCenter highlights for beating Florida – again.

``That might be the play of the year right there,'' Pearl said.

The play of the year for the team of the year.

``It's amazing,'' said Bradshaw, who had 15 points, five assists, four steals, four rebounds and a career-high three 3-pointers. ``I give all the credit to Coach Pearl and his staff. If he's not up for national coach of the year, I don't know who is.''

Pearl is a lock for SEC Coach of the Year. He's a lock for national coach of the year if the Vols don't hit a wall. He delivered his 13th 20-win season in 14 years as a coach and Tennessee's 19th 20-win season.

Has Tennessee ever had a more improbable 20-win season?

``The players were celebrating more than the coaches in the locker room,'' Bradshaw said after UT upset a 7-point favorite. ``I said, `Sorry, Coach, I know you're used to this, but we haven't done anything like this since high school.''

Pearl, who sweated so much in the first half it looked as though he'd taken a Gatorade shower, said he couldn't be happier for a group of players who hadn't experienced much success on the college level.

``This team wants to win as much as any team I've ever coached,'' Pearl said. ``And I've coached some championship teams.''

Tennessee didn't appear headed toward victory in the first half, trailing by 13 points in the first half.

What did Pearl tell his team at that point?

``I don't remember being down that much,'' Pearl admitted.

Maybe that's a key to his success – play your game and don't get caught up the score, at least, not in the first half.

The Vols whittled the gap to 40-36 at halftime, thanks to three 3-pointers by Chris Lofton. But the half-court defense was suspect – Chris Richard had 14 first-half points on 7 of 7 shooting – until late in the first half.

``We're challenged in the half-court defense,'' Pearl said. ``We've got to see the ball. We were much more aggressive than we were against Alabama, and we did a better job jumping the ball on the blocks in the second half.''

Just as he did before the Kentucky game, Pearl showed the team tape of itself before the Florida contest, using that as a last-minute teaching tool. It worked.

Come to think of it, just about everything Pearl has done this season has worked. Moving Bradshaw to power forward. Giving Lofton a green light. Inserting Andre Patterson into the starting lineup. Shooting threes. Pressing. Wearing orange blazers.

It's resulted in 20 wins.

It's resulted in several signature surprises.

And, it appears, there's more to come.


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