Pearl vision key to Bradshaw's career

The reigning national champions and this year's Southeastern Conference champions came rolling into Thompson-Boling Arena hell bent on avenging last year's close defeat to Tennessee in Knoxville. But the Vols, Dane Bradshaw and 24,000 fans had other ideas.

Tennessee ripped off 17 unanswered points in the first half, bolted to a 50-31 halftime lead, and increased the margin to 27 points before settling for an 86-76 victory over the fifth-ranked Florida Gators Tuesday night on ESPN.

And Thompson-Boling Arena was rocking once again.

Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt dressed in a cheerleader outfit, sang Rocky Top and placed a hat with orange and white streamers on the bare head of ESPN's Dick Vitale.

Peyton Manning was in the stands, sitting behind the Tennessee bench.

UT alum Woody Paige, a columnist with the Denver Post who is featured on ESPN's Around the Horn, was on hand.

Even among those celebrities, this was Dane Bradshaw's night. During pregame ceremonies, Coach Bruce Pearl and his wife endowed a $100,000 scholarship in Bradshaw's name. Then fans waved placards with No. 23.

Never has a guy who scored so little been so loved.

But on this night, Bradshaw wasn't about to go scoreless – which he had done in five previous SEC games.

Bradshaw nailed his first shot -- ``I can't remember the last time I hit my first shot,'' he said – swished a 3-pointer from the left corner, banked one high off the glass over Al Horford and even made three of four free throws to keep the Gators at bay after Chris Lofton uncharacteristically clanked five free throws.

Bradshaw scored 10 points – the first time he's hit double digits in an SEC game this season. He also added a team-high six rebounds and a team-high five assists.

He hit the basket that ignited a 17-0 first-half run. He hit a 3-pointer to give UT its largest lead, 58-31. He got an assist to JaJuan Smith to stem a Florida rally. And he made a late steal to help seal the deal.

What did he enjoy most – the 3-pointer or the high arching shot over Joakim Noah?

``The 3, definitely,'' said Bradshaw, now 5-3 against Florida. ``That's the one I work on all the time. That's why I threw my hands in the air (and did a twirl in front of the student section).''

With 20 seconds left and the Vols' comfortably ahead, he left the court for the last time as a Vol. He left to a thunderous ovation from appreciative fans who understand basketball is about more than just shooting.

``It was very special the way the crowd was embraced me,'' said Bradshaw, whose every point was applauded, ``because a slump is an understatement for the way I've been shooting lately.''

Bradshaw entered the game mired in a 7-for-55 tailspin. Except for a few detractors, the Vol Nation had Bradshaw's back.

``I felt like they (fans) were with me along the way, through my ups and downs,'' Bradshaw said. ``Through my whole career, there have always been obstacles. To go out like this at home, with 25,000 people, and for them to really help pull me through …

``As down as I've been about my play, with so much of a positive environment around me at the beginning of the game, it was hard not to be able sit back and finally start enjoying the game a little bit more.''

Fans enjoyed it, too, waving hundreds of No. 23 placards. For a while, it appeared that might be the margin of victory.

The Vols led by 27 with 16 minutes left. They led by 25 with 11 minutes left.

``I was happy with where we were, but I wasn't that confident,'' said Bradshaw. ``You always want to play with that chip in your shoulder and because they're so good, it kept us on our toes. There was almost too much time left.''

Bradshaw's right. Florida cut 12 points off the lead in just over two minutes. And with six minutes left, the difference was down to nine.

That's when Bradshaw provided another spark to help carry the Vols home.

``I'm sure it's a great night for a guy like Dane Bradshaw,'' said Florida coach Billy Donovan, classy in defeat. ``I've always respected and admired how hard he's played and how hard he's worked and the way he approaches the game with his passion level.''

Florida guard Lee Humphrey of Maryville has respected Bradshaw since the days they played together in high school summer camps.

``He helps his team out in so many ways that are not always noticed by fans,'' Humphrey said. ``He's not scoring a lot of points, but he's getting rebounds and making good passes. He helps control the team and makes good decisions. I think he's a big part of Tennessee's success.''

Another big part of Tennessee's success is Pearl. It was Pearl's vision to move Bradshaw from a struggling point guard his first two years – he didn't shoot well enough and wasn't quick enough to play the position – to power forward despite his 6-4 size.

It was Pearl who believed Bradshaw was tough enough to guard bigger men inside, smart enough to play several positions and savvy enough to make plays despite his shooting deficiencies.

It was Pearl who donated $100,000 to endow a scholarship in Bradshaw's name.

But what Pearl has meant to Bradshaw as a player is priceless.

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