'Timely' D wins for UT

It was one of those moments that is often overlooked but usually critical to the outcome of a game.

With 1:47 left and Tennessee leading Florida 57-54 Sunday at Thompson-Boling Arena, the Gators were struggling to get into their offense against a fired-up Vol defense. Florida coach Billy Donovan called timeout to set up a play, then reacted with dismay when one of his players had to call another timeout because he couldn't inbound the ball when the action resumed.

Donovan's frustration was understandable. Those were Florida's last two timeouts, which you figured might come back to haunt the Gators ... and it did.

When Scotty Hopson hit a jump shot to give Tennessee a 61-60 lead with 21 seconds left, Florida did not have the luxury of calling a timeout to set up its final play. Instead, the Gators had to wing it. They got a good shot - a six-footer by Alex Tyus - but it was long, and they had no weakside rebounding help. This enabled Hopson to grab the misfire and dribble out the remaining seconds.

In retrospect, forcing Florida to call those back-to-back timeouts at the 1:47 mark perhaps was the winning edge for Tennessee. At the very least it was typical of the defensive intensity that fueled the Vols' second-half comeback.

After allowing Florida to shoot 57.7 percent en route to a 34-28 intermission lead, Tennessee limited the Gators to 36.4 percent in the second half.

"I thought our defense was really, really, really terrific," Vol coach Bruce Pearl conceded. "It and rebounding won the game for us."

Ah, yes ... rebounding. After losing the backboards 20-14 in the first half, the Vols dominated by a 27-12 margin in the second half. That was just enough to offset a Big Orange offense that made just 38.5 percent of its shots.

"Defense and rebounding win championships," Pearl said. "This roster is going to look ugly sometimes on the offensive end but you can't let your struggles offensively affect how you defend and how you get back in transition."

Tennessee played poorly on defense in back-to-back losses at Georgia (Jan. 23) and versus Vanderbilt (Jan. 27). The Vols were no better at the beginning of Sunday's game with Florida, allowing the Gators to cruise to a 32-22 lead.

"I thought the first 10 minutes of the game we gave Florida a comfort zone and let them run their stuff," Pearl said. "They got great spacing and got anything they wanted."

Whatever the coach said during the break, it worked. Tennessee's defense was dramatically better in the second half.

"I thought our effort picked up," Pearl said. "I thought our ball pressure picked up.... We made them (Gators) handle the ball farther away from the basket. I felt we had to take them out of their comfort zone a little bit because they shot 57 percent the first half."

Hopson was proud of UT's work on defense and the backboards over the final 20 minutes.

"We just stuck to what our identity is - defense and rebounding," he said. "We stepped up the ball pressure, tried to keep the ball out of the post and make it tough for 'em on any shot they had. It worked out for us."

Tennessee's second-half rebounding was even more impressive than its second-half defense. After recording just three first-half rebounds, Vol senior Wayne Chism pulled down eight in the second half. Five were off the offensive glass.

"I just went in there and said, 'I'm getting every board,' and that's what happened," Chism said. "I got my boy Naldo (Renaldo Woolridge) to come in there and get some rebounds, too ... and J.P. and my guards, too."

J.P. Prince, like Chism, saved his best for last. After grabbing just two defensive rebounds prior to intermission, he reeled in five thereafter - four of them coming at the offensive end. Between them, Chism and Prince accounted for nine offensive rebounds in the second half.

"That's what me and J.P. are known for," Chism said, grinning smugly. "We're some sneaky people in there for the rebounds."

Sneaky or not, their rebounding was a huge key to the victory.

"I thought the game was won and lost on the boards," Pearl said. "We had 14 second-chance points, and I imagine J.P. Prince had six or eight of them.

"What is that? That's just effort and toughness."


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