41-year drought ends

The 41-year drought is over. Tennessee won its first SEC outright championship since 1967, and they did it on the home court of the two-time defending national champions Wednesday night.

Thanks to a hot streak by JaJuan Smith, a go-ahead follow by Tyler Smith and two key free throws by Wayne Chism, Tennessee rallied from a 16-point first-half deficit to edge past Florida, 89-86.

Coupled with Vanderbilt's overtime win over Mississippi State, UT clinched first place with a 13-2 SEC record. Mississippi State fell to 11-4, the same mark as Kentucky with only one game left.

``They came to Florida to win this championship,'' Vols coach Bruce Pearl said.

It's not an easy place to win a game, much less a championship. Florida was 15-3 at home this season and Billy Donovan's teams were 49-5 at the O'Connell Center over the past three years.

Moreover, Florida's hopes of earning an NCAA Tournament bid were probably on the line. The Gators entered the game with a No. 60 RPI and a strength of schedule of 104.

That's not an eye-catching resume for the NCAA Selection Committee.

But Tennessee has a sparkling resume. The Vols finish with a 6-2 SEC road record, and scored away wins against Memphis, Mississippi State, Xavier, Gonzaga, West Virginia and, now, Florida.

Tennessee is in line for a No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. A couple of wins in the SEC Tournament should ensure a No. 1 seed.

But that's not what was on the minds of the players in Gainesville.

The SEC title was.

``We know it's going to mean a lot to us 10 years down the road,'' said JaJuan Smith, who scored 16 of his 23 points in the second half and drew a key charge with 7.9 seconds left.

``It's just a wonderful feeling. The hard work we did in the summer is paying off. … This was one of our goals. We're going to enjoy this win because we ain't did this in 41 years.''

It was all the more sweet for Tennessee to capture the SEC title in Gainesville.

``This was our last time playing in this good atmosphere and we wanted to go out with a bang,'' JaJuan Smith said.

Indeed, the Vols did finish with a bang. But it wasn't easy.

Tennessee's defense was miserable in the first half. Florida hit its first nine shots, surged to leads of 23-10 and 35-19, and had a rather comfortable 55-42 lead at halftime thanks to 68 percent shooting.

The Vols allowed Florida to hit 7-of-12 from 3-point range, leaving the Gators open from beyond the arc. The interior defense wasn't any better. A number of dunks and layups went uncontested.

Pearl, knowing the Gators desperately needed a win to make an NCAA tourney case, figured Florida would come out super charged.

``I'm starting to think coach Pearl is a genius,'' JaJuan Smith said. ``He told us before the game Florida would come out hot. He said they're not going to keep shooting the ball that good.''

The Gators didn't.

When Tennessee scored the first seven points of the second half and made a few stops, the rally was on. JaJuan Smith's follow with 7:40 left gave UT its first lead and a 14-0 run helped produce a 79-69 advantage with six minutes left.

But Florida still had some fight. Two threes by Florida cut the gap to 79-74. A Nick Calathes three tied the score at 85 but Tyler Smith followed the second of two missed free throws by JaJuan Smith.

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

After Florida's Marreese Speights hit a free throw, UT's Wayne Chism, a 49 percent free-throw shooter, calmly hit two free throws for an 89-86 lead with 18.5 seconds to account for the final score.

``I hope everybody back home is celebrating,'' Pearl said.

Pearl then gave credit to the competition.

``Florida played a great basketball game,'' Pearl said. ``They played about as well as they could possibly play.''

But Pearl was upset with his team's first-half defense.

``You have to be ultra aggressive against Florida's spread offense,'' Pearl said. ``I begged those guys to jump out there and trap. Florida just picked us apart. I couldn't get a handle on it until five, six minutes left in first half. By then it was almost too late.''

Tennessee's conditioning paid off. The Vols committed just three second-half turnovers while forcing 10 and limited Florida to 47 percent shooting in the second half.

Florida's Walter Hodge, who had 15 first-half points, scored one in the second half. Dan Werner, who had 11 first-half points, got five in the second half as the Gators appeared to tire.

``Folks, you just don't understand how bad these kids wanted it,'' Pearl said.

Chris Lofton, who scored 21 points, was thrilled. He ran his record to 6-2 against Florida, having won five of the last six against the Gators.

``It's a great feeling right now,'' Lofton said. ``The seniors, we came from the bottom. We're kind of on top now.''

Indeed. While it was predicted, that doesn't make it any less enjoyable.

``Sometimes it's harder to do what you're supposed to do,'' Pearl said.

After 41 years, it doesn't matter what was expected.

The title is Tennessee's.


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