Tennessee pulled out all the stops, all right, beginning with a touching pre-game tribute to Dane Bradshaw, the team's lone senior. Then Lady Vol coach Pat Summitt, clad in a UT cheerleader outfit, sang "Rocky Top" during the first media timeout.
When the 6-4 Bradshaw – who had made just 7 of his previous 55 field-goal tries – sank a fallaway 7-footer over 6-11 Joakim Noah two minutes later, you got the idea this was going to be Tennessee's night.
"I can't remember the last time I made my first shot," Bradshaw deadpanned after the game.
Regardless, his bucket ignited the crowd AND a 17-0 run that turned a 16-17 deficit into a 33-17 Tennessee lead.
All that was left at this point was to introduce former Vol football hero Peyton Manning … which UT did with 2:09 left in the half. Like Bradshaw and Summitt before him, he got a standing ovation.
Basically, Tennessee tried every motivational ploy in the book, and each of them worked. The fired-up Vols hung half-a-hundred first-half points on a Florida team that allows just 61 points per game, best in the SEC. Pearl called it "as good a half as we've played in here."
After shooting 66.7 percent (20 of 30) en route to their 50-31 intermission lead, the Vols seemingly had nowhere to go but down. Instead, they outscored the Gators 8-0 to open the second half, building a 27-point lead (58-31) when Bradshaw – who else? – drained a 3 from the left corner.
Leading 65-40 lead with 12 minutes remaining, Tennessee did what teams with 25-point leads traditionally do: It began milking the clock. And Florida did what defending national champs traditionally do: It began making an incredible rally.
As the Vols' aggressiveness waned, the Gators' aggressiveness grew. They outscored Tennessee 21-4 over the next six minutes, closing to 69-61 with 6:08 remaining.
Chris Lofton scored on a drive to stop the bleeding, then Ramar Smith and Wayne Chism hit two free throws each to complete a 6-0 spurt that padded the lead to 75-61. Tennessee managed to hold on from there, despite making just 9 of 16 free throws over the game's final 3:33.
Lofton finished with 21 points and 4 assists. Backcourt mate JaJuan Smith chipped in 16 points and a terrific defensive job on Gator point guard Taurean Green (2 of 11 from the field, 5 turnovers and just 3 assists). Bradshaw was perfect from the field (3 of 3) and near-perfect from the foul line (3 of 4) en route to a 10-point, 6-rebound, 5-assist, 2-steal performance.
The win improves Tennessee's record to 21-9 overall and 9-6 in SEC play. It also improves Tennessee's seeding for the upcoming NCAA Tournament. The loss – Florida's third in the past four games – drops the Gators to 25-5 and 12-3.
Pearl, now 3-1 against Florida, said Tennessee's team defense was "terrific," and praised Manning for an inspirational pre-game pep talk. The ex-Vol was so intense that Bradshaw said, "I thought Peyton Manning was going to take us to the stands" for pre-game warm-ups.
At one point Bradshaw worried that the motivational antics might be getting a little too over the top.
"I was like, ‘Man, if we lose this game, they're going to say we had too many distractions going on,'" he said. "It was like a circus. You had my ceremony … Peyton was out there … Pat doing her thing."
Ultimately, the sideshow atmosphere motivated the Vols without distracting them. That made for a truly unforgettable evening.
Bradshaw said it best: "It was just a magical night."