"I've got to give Jason Shay, my assistant coach, a lot of credit," Pearl said on his post-game show. "He's had the Florida scout since we got here, and he just absolutely does a great job. He doesn't just study Florida; he studies Coach Donovan."
The Vols, 18-10 overall, improve to 9-5 in conference play. They'll face South Carolina, also 9-5 in league play, Thursday night in Columbia with the division lead on the line. Florida, 21-8 overall, slips to 8-6 in conference action.
Tennessee sank an amazing 65.5 percent of its first-half shots Sunday, including 7 of 9 from 3-point range. The result was a commanding 45-33 lead at the break.
"We had to work really hard to get spacing against that matchup zone," Pearl said. "They (Gators) actually got out of it the second half; they'd been playing that zone all year long.
"We did a good job of understanding what they like to do, and we created some matchups against the matchup zone; we got (6-7) Tyler Smith posted up against (6-0) Walter Hodge, and we got Nick Calathes three fouls trying to guard Tyler."
Once Calathes went to the bench after picking up fouls 2 and 3 in the first 29 seconds of the second half, the Vols gradually extended the lead to 16 points (59-43) with 11:31 to go.
Calathes returned, however, and so did the Gators. He hit a 3-pointer to open a 10-2 spurt that narrowed the gap to 61-53.
When back-to-back 3-pointers by Erving Walker and Dan Werner whittled the deficit to 69-65 with 3:16 remaining, Tennessee began attacking the rim. Wayne Chism scored on a five-footer, then J.P. Prince and Tyler Smith were fouled on drives to the basket – each converting one of two free throws.
A pair of Calathes free throws narrowed the gap to 73-70 with 1:31 left but Chism scored on a beautiful lob from Prince with 1:10 remaining. Walker, a 5-8 freshman, hit a driving 5-footer for Florida and unloaded a potential game-tying 3-pointer moments later. Tennessee freshman Scotty Hopson blocked the shot, however, to preserve the three-point lead.
Chism hit one of two free throws at 0:26.6, then Smith added a pair at 0:16.3 as the lead swelled to 78-72. Walker drained another 3 for Florida but Smith sealed the victory by making the second of two foul shots with 7.3 seconds left.
Smith led Tennessee with 19 points and 7 rebounds.
"We're getting great leadership from Tyler Smith," Pearl said. "He's really effectively understood that we play best when everybody contributes."
Chism added 18 points for the Vols. Calathes scored 20 and Walker 16 for Florida.
Given up for dead eight days ago after lopsided losses at Ole Miss (81-65) and Kentucky (77-58), the Vols bounced back to play quite well in beating Mississippi State (81-76) and Florida in the past five days.
"I called everybody out – not just my team ... I called myself out," Pearl said. "I called my coaches out. We weren't focused. We didn't have a purpose. We weren't playing with poise. We weren't playing with enough passion.
"I think the last thing was, I got them to have a little bit more pride in that uniform, understanding what it represents and all that we've worked for.
"I tell you, we were embarrassed with how ineffectively we played (at Ole Miss and Kentucky) ... I was, and so were they. And they've done something about it."