Crossing Jordan

It takes more than great players doing great things to produce a great season. It takes an occasional contribution from an unexpected source.

There could be no more unexpected source in Wednesday night's Tennessee-Florida game than Jordan Howell. The Vol senior came in battling the mother of all shooting slumps – having made just 2 of his previous 23 field-goal attempts, including 2 of 20 from 3-point range.

Opponents had begun backing off Howell, who – even unguarded – continued to miss shot after shot. As a result, the backup point guard was on the verge of becoming an after-thought in the Vols' playing rotation. After averaging nearly 19 minutes through the first 28 games, he saw just five minutes of action Sunday against Kentucky. His only shot of the game was a 3-pointer that barely grazed the rim.

Things got so bad that head coach Bruce Pearl began toying with the idea of handing 6-8 J.P. Prince the No. 2 point guard job and relegating Howell to mop-up duty. After all, with Tennessee needing a win at Florida to clinch its first outright SEC title in 41 years, Pearl had to do what was best for the team.

Ultimately, that's precisely what the coach did. By giving Howell one more chance, Pearl made a decision that helped spur Tennessee to an 89-86 victory that locked up the league championship.

With Tennessee down 39-26 late in the first half, Howell hit a 12-foot jumper from the lane and a 3-pointer from the top of the key that pulled the Vols within 41-31. The buckets didn't shift the momentum – Florida went on to lead 55-42 at halftime – but they restored Howell's confidence and forced the Gators to guard him. That opened things up a bit for Vol wings JaJuan Smith (23 points) and Chris Lofton (21).

Howell's stat line showed 2 of 3 from the field, 1 of 2 from beyond the arc, 5 points, an assist and zero turnovers in 18 quality minutes. The performance didn't make headlines but it made a significant impact on the game, especially for a guy who very nearly was reduced to a mop-up role.

"I made the decision to go back with Jordan Howell," Pearl said on his post-game show. "Go with your seniors. I wrestled with that right up until game time. Then I decided, 'You know what: We're not going to make this tough on ourselves. What we need is for Jordan to do his thing,' and he obviously stepped up huge."

Unlike most recent opponents, Florida was willing to run with Tennessee. That enabled the Vols to rely on a free-flowing transition game instead of a halfcourt offense that has struggled mightily at times.

"We went back to basics tonight offensively," Pearl said. "We went back to some of our most basic, simple stuff, and it was effective."

The Vols also went back to Jordan Howell, who delivered for the first time in about a month. His experience – along with that of fellow seniors Smith and Lofton – could be pivotal with postseason play looming.

"I don't think there's any question," Pearl said. "Jordan, a senior, hunted his shot. He played good defense. He wasn't afraid to fail out there, and I thought that was awfully significant."


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