'Banner' effort wins for UT

The day before Tennessee played rival Florida in a key SEC East Division game, Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said it was a hold-serve game, not a separation game.

But during Tuesday's walk-through, Pearl changed his mind.

This, he told his team, was a banner game, meaning this is the kind of game you must win to capture an SEC championship.

After a shaky start, the seventh-ranked Vols turned in a banner performance, ripping the 20th-ranked Gators 104-82, thanks to a terrific second half.

It didn't start out as a rout. The Gators jumped to a 16-3 lead with a 13-0 run against a porous defense and a sluggish Tennessee team.

It looked similar to Florida's 59-20 rout of the football Vols. Nick Calathes was Tim Tebow and Marresse Speights was Percy Harvin, ripping through UT with ease in what must have been the spread option offense.

``Give all the credit to Florida,'' said Tennessee forward Tyler Smith. ``They get out and run like us and they hit us hard the first five minutes of the game.''

At that point, Pearl substituted four new players. Florida kept the lead at 21-8 before an 8-0 run changed the tone. The Vols ultimately tied the game at 30-30 but Florida led 48-44 at halftime thanks to 64-percent shooting.

But you know you're in trouble when you shoot 64 percent and lead by only four.

And the young Gators were in trouble.

Tennessee led just 67-65 with 10:28 left, but the Vols ratcheted up the defense, hit a barrage of threes, and got a huge second half from Tyler Smith to close the game out with a 37-17 run for a comfortable win.

Tyler Smith, held to two points in the first half, finished with 23 and sparked a UT defense that held Florida to 41 percent shooting in the second half, 0-for-6 from 3-point range. Florida also had just four assists compared to 13 in the first half.

``We knew we'd have a run,'' said Tyler Smith, who registered back-to-back dunks off steals in the final three minutes. ``Coach told us to be patient.''

But it was the uptempo that turned the tide. While Florida appeared to tire, the Vols hit another gear in what might have been the team's best half all season. It was enough to give UT a two-game cushion over the two-time defending national champions in the East Division.

``The guys were human highlight reels,'' Pearl said. ``We were getting turnovers, running down floor so fast and finishing plays and sharing the sugar. It was great to see the extra pass being made. We had that attack mode. We weren't sitting back and milking the lead. We were looking to extend the lead.

``To score 104 points and have only nine turnovers (to 27 assists) and play fast, that's a great number.''

Pearl is now 4-1 against Florida and UT's 20-2 start is the best in school history. The 28 consecutive home wins has been surpassed just once in UT history.

But Pearl wasn't in a celebratory mood in the aftermath. Instead, he was flustered by his team not adjusting sooner.

For example, in the first half, Florida's pick-and-roll picked apart UT's defense. The reason: UT wasn't putting enough pressure on the ball handler, who had a clear avenue to make an entry pass to the cutter. The result was Speights scoring 15 first-half points of his 23 total.

``You've got to put pressure on the quarterback so he can't turn the corner and have easy passing lanes or viewing lanes to the basket,'' Pearl said. ``We couldn't get them (UT guards) to budge.''

At halftime, Pearl told his perimeter defenders if they didn't jump out to guard the ball-handler, ``you're not playing.''

In the second half, UT defenders jumped out, and Florida's guards couldn't get the ball inside.

``I shouldn't have to fight my own team to do what they have to do,'' Pearl said. ``But we won, yeah, we won.''

Pearl admitted to being frustrated with some players – namely J.P. Prince and Brian Williams – for making the same mistakes on defense.

Yet, Pearl thinks Prince is close to be an explosive offensive threat. Prince scored just 10 points on 4-of-10 shooting in11 minutes but could have had more baskets.

``He could have been 10-for-10,'' Pearl said. ``He had so many great looks. J.P. is learning and growing, developing. Some of it can get done in the offseason, but some of it can get done now. He needs to finish at the rim. He's a great finisher, but he's not pulling the trigger. But boy he can go by you. I have great confidence in J.P. I really do.''

Pearl is also gaining confidence in his team's rebounding. For the third straight game, the Vols outrebounded an SEC team by at least eight, beating Florida 39-31. UT grabbed 17 offensive rebounds.

``It was great effort,'' Pearl said. ``Our rebounding numbers are good in the SEC.''

But Pearl thinks his team can make improvement inside. Tyler Smith did a great job finishing around the rim, but Prince, Brian Williams, Duke Crews and Wayne Chism did not.

``We still need more inside scoring,'' Pearl said.

With all that complaining, you'd have thought UT lost by 22, not chomped the Gators by 22.

But when you're thinking about a banner, you want banner performances.

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