"Coach came to the bench and said, 'Scotty, win this for us,'" Hopson recalled. "I looked at him and smiled and said, 'I got you, Coach.' That gave me the confidence of knocking it down."
And that's precisely what he did. Hopson drained a 19-foot jumper from the right wing to provide a 61-60 lead with 21 seconds left, then rebounded a missed six-footer by Florida's Alex Tyus with 2 seconds remaining to seal the deal.
"Big players make big plays," Hopson said, "and that's what I did in that situation."
The big finish didn't go quite the way it was planned, however, and Hopson's game-winning shot was a lot tougher as a result.
Wayne Chism, the Vols' 6-9 post, was supposed to cut to the basket, drawing 6-9 Gator Chandler Parsons with him and leaving the 6-7 Hopson guarded by 6-2 Gator Kenny Boynton. Instead, Parsons stayed with Hopson.
"Wayne was supposed to be a decoy to get in the middle, and I was supposed to be wide open for the 3," Hopson recalled. "But Parsons stayed on me. I had to adjust and create my own shot. Luckily, it went in."
Pearl conceded that the play didn't work the way it was designed to, except the part about Hopson getting the ball.
"Parsons did a great job staying with him," the coach said. "What he (Hopson) did from there was all him."
Hopson hit several last-minute game-winners when he was a High School All-American back in Hopkinsville, Ky., but this was his first at the college level. Still, he wasn't feeling particularly nervous.
"I didn't really feel much," he said. "I just felt like when I got the ball it was going in."
He was right. And, because he was right, the 14th-ranked Vols improved to 16-4 overall, 4-2 in SEC play and rekindled their hopes of repeating as Eastern Division champs. That was a lot to be riding on one shot.
"It was very exciting," said Hopson, who finished with 10 points and 3 assists. "I felt this was maybe the biggest shot of my career, as far as college-wise. It gives me confidence, as far as knocking it down. Maybe if we're in another (clutch) situation I hope Coach has the confidence to put the ball in my hands, and I'll try to knock it down for him."
Although it was Hopson who provided the late heroics, Chism deserved an equal share of credit for the Vol victory. He led Tennessee in points (16), rebounds (11) and blocks (2), in addition to sharing the lead in assists (3). Moreover, he prevented Tyus from getting closer than six feet on the game's final shot.
J.P. Prince made a critical contribution for the Vols, as well, chipping in 12 points, 7 rebounds, an assist and 2 steals. He also took three charges.
Tennessee's bench came through, too. Cameron Tatum contributed 8 points and 5 rebounds in 15 solid minutes. Skylar McBee hit a couple of crucial 3-pointers and dished out 2 assists in 11 minutes. Melvin Goins recorded 2 assists and 3 steals in 14 minutes, while helping limit Florida guards Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker to a combined 5 of 20 from the floor, including 1 of 11 from 3.
Tyus finished with 18 points and 7 rebounds to pace the Gators, now 15-6 overall and 4-3 in league play. Parsons added 14 points, including Florida's final seven of the game.
Pearl noted that his team was "very, very fortunate to have won the game," and he wasn't just being gracious. The Gators shot 57.7 percent in the first half but just 36.4 percent in the second half. They outrebounded the Vols 20-14 in the first half but were outrebounded 27-12 in the second half. Tennessee won despite shooting just 38.5 percent (25 of 65) from the field, 30.4 percent (7 of 23) from 3 and 33.3 percent (4 of 12) from the foul line.
Florida led for 17 of the game's first 20 minutes, going up by 10 (34-24) before Chism and Tatum scored on putbacks to narrow the halftime margin to 34-28.
Chism hit a 3 to open the second half, igniting a 17-6 spurt that gave Tennessee its biggest lead at 45-40 with 10:37 remaining. The Gators surged ahead 48-47 but McBee and Renaldo Woolridge hit back-to-back 3-pointers as Tennessee went up 53-48 with just over 5 minutes left.
Parsons scored on a drive to tie the score at 57 with 1:03 left but Chism answered with a couple of clutch foul shots at the 42-second mark. Parsons responded with a 3 to give Florida a 60-59 lead at 0:34 and set up Hopson's late heroics.
Hopson has such a low-key demeanor that opponents seem to fall asleep defensively at times. One teammate thinks that's what happened in the final seconds of today's game.
"They sleep on him a lot nowadays," Chism said. "When Scotty gets sleeped on, he's going to make a lot of shots."