Vols win SEC ... outright

Watching Tennessee and Florida this year was like watching a modern-day version of "The Tortoise and The Hare." Florida (The Hare) explodes to a big lead but Tennessee (The Tortoise) eventually comes from behind to win.

It happened Feb. 5 in Knoxville, when the Gators hit nine of their first 10 shots en route to a 21-8 lead only to wind up losing. Wednesday night's rematch in Gainesville followed the same script. The Gators hit their first nine shots and led 35-19 midway through the half only to succumb to another determined Vol rally.

Fourth-ranked Tennessee's 89-86 victory – coupled with Vanderbilt's 86-85 overtime defeat of Mississippi State in Nashville – clinched the Vols' first outright SEC championship since the 1966-67 team turned the trick 41 years ago. Tennessee (27-3 overall, 13-2 in conference play) has a two-game lead over Mississippi State and Kentucky (both 11-4) with just one game to play.

Additionally, the 27 victories sets a new single-season record for the Vols.

Tennessee's triumph was no fluke. The Vols had to overcome a double-digit deficit to beat a red-hot team in front of a fired-up crowd.

"Appreciate how difficult it was for us to come in here and do this on a night when Florida played great basketball," UT coach Bruce Pearl said on his post-game show. "They played about as well as they could possibly play. That young team really stepped up and they bothered us."

Wings JaJuan Smith (23 points) and Chris Lofton (21) led the scoring for Tennessee but it was forwards Tyler Smith (13) and Wayne Chism (12) who ultimately made the clutch plays in the final minute.

With the score tied at 85-all and 44 seconds left, JaJuan Smith missed both ends of a two-shot foul. Tyler Smith rebounded the second miss, however, and scored on a putback for an 87-85 lead with 42 seconds remaining.

"Tyler is a tough kid," Pearl said. "He's a winner, and he makes winning plays. That free-throw rebound was an SEC championship-winning play that a special player has to make."

Florida's Marreese Speights hit a free throw to narrow the gap to 87-86 with 27 seconds left but Chism – a 49-percent foul shooter – swished a pair of clutch free throws with 18.5 seconds left, padding the lead to 89-86.

"He controlled his emotions," Pearl said. "Wayne cares so much. Wayne stayed so calm. He fed off the confidence of some of his teammates. Tyler did a good job of settling him down."

The Vols appeared to seal the deal when JaJuan Smith took a charge from Florida's Dan Werner with 7.9 seconds left but Tennessee botched its ensuing inbounds pass, giving the Gators one last gasp. Nick Calathes missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer, however, enabling the Vols to beat Florida for the fifth time in the last six meetings.

The Gators shot a sizzling 67.8 percent from the field (19 of 28) en route to a 55-42 halftime lead. Tennessee scored the first seven points of the second half, narrowing the gap to 55-49, but still trailed 65-60 with 11 minutes left. That's when JaJuan Smith put the Vols on his back.

Smith scored on a 3-pointer and a drive, narrowing the gap to 67-65. Speights hit two free throws for a 69-65 Florida lead with 8:48 to go but Tennessee outscored the Gators 14-0 over the next 2½ minutes.

After a 3 by Lofton, Smith scored on a garbage basket to give Tennessee its first lead of the game at 70-69. Smith then nailed back-to-back 3s, boosting the lead to 76-69. A Lofton free throw and a Chism layup completed the 14-0 run and gave Tennessee a 79-69 bulge with 6:13 remaining.

Calathes hit a pair of 3-pointers, however, the last capping a 16-6 Florida flurry that tied the score at 85 with 1:47 to play and set up the dramatic finish.

Pearl's mantra all season has been "We play best when everyone contributes." The Vols certainly accomplished that Wednesday night.

"All this stuff has to happen (for Tennessee to win)," Pearl noted. "JaJuan Smith's got to go on that little spurt. Chris Lofton's got to carry us like he does. Tyler Smith's got to make big play after big play. Then Wayne Chism makes those two free throws. Off the charts!"

Calathes finished with 24 points and 9 assists to pace the Gators, who slip to 21-9 overall and 8-7 in league play. Speights added 21 points, Walter Hodge and Werner 16 each.

Tennessee hit 52 percent (33 of 63) from the floor and 45 percent (9 of 20) from beyond the arc. Thanks to its blazing hot start, Florida's numbers were even better. The Gators shot 59 percent (28 of 47) from the floor and 47.6 percent (10 of 21) from 3.

Ultimately, Tennessee's depth proved decisive ... as has happened so many times this year. After committing just four first-turnovers, the Gators were guilty of 10 in the second half, enabling the visiting Vols to turn the momentum and post a monumental victory.

Pearl called the triumph "clearly one of the biggest wins of the last three years – to win it outright against the competition we're facing and to do it in such a spectacular forum."

Like the Tortoise, the Vols kept plodding along after falling far behind. And, like the Hare, the Gators couldn't finish what they started.

"This is a young Florida team, and we might've scared 'em a little bit," Pearl said. "We scared 'em into thinking we were not going to be denied."

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