KNOXVILLE— The Vols grabbed a 39-37 lead on a Trae Golden jumper with 15:54 to play, and though the Gators stayed within two possessions for the majority of the second half, UT never surrendered that lead en route to a 64-58 win. Tennessee owned a three point advantage at the break, 35-32, thanks to 17 points from Jordan McRae. While the Vols didn’t play particularly well in the first 20 minutes, McRae’s heroics were enough for them to overcome a seven point first half Gator lead.
After looking a little too amped early, the Vols settled into their offense and shored up their defense. As the game progressed, it was Florida, not Tennessee, that looked like the team which played a four overtime contest just four days ago. In a game that resembled hand-to-hand combat at times, the Vols were simply the more determined team in key moments. That’s becoming a trend for this team which now owns a six game winning streak and is sprinting toward an NCAA Tournament bid.
Offense: Not enough can be said about the performance of Jordan McRae. The junior forward has been playing unbelievable ball since the start of SEC play, and that didn’t change against the Gators. He led all scorers with 27 points in 39 minutes of play, added seven rebounds, four assists, two blocks, and two steals. McRae is averaging 28 points in his last three games, and has a knack for picking the Vols up when Golden and Stokes are struggling to score. No Vol other than McRae finished in double-figures, yet his stellar play was enough to propel UT to the critically important victory.
Coming off a game in which he played 56 minutes, Trae Golden was clearly fatigued. He didn’t have the same ability to get to the bucket that he’s shown since his return from a hamstring injury, but still managed to be effective. The Vol point guard chipped in eight points, none bigger than his 3 which gave the Vols an eight point led with under eight minutes to play, and ran Tennessee’s offense while limiting his turnovers (he had two in 34 minutes of action).
“Even though Trae didn’t score a lot, I thought he did a good job of running the team, and defending,” Cuonzo said. “That’s just the growth of Trae Golden, because in the past if he wasn’t scoring I don’t think he would have been effective, but the way he played defensively, he was locked in and still ran the team so credit to Trae Golden.”
In the paint, Stokes struggled early against Patric Young. The massive Florida forward bested Stokes in the points column (15 for Young to eight for Stokes), but couldn’t keep him off the boards. Stokes grabbed 14 rebounds, and iced the game with an offensive rebound off a McRae miss with 55 seconds to play. He fought off four Florida defenders for the ball, got fouled (multiple times) in the act of making a layup, and converted the ensuing free throw to give the Vols a seven point lead. It was precisely that kind of determination and toughness that led to this Tennessee win.
Josh Richardson turned in a nice effort. He scored seven points on 3-7 shooting, dished out three assists, played excellent defense, and didn’t turn the ball over. Skylar McBee added five points, Kenny Hall four, Lopez and Chievous each recorded two points, and Yemi Makanjoula added one.
The Vols shot 42.1% for the game, 27.8% from 3, and 57.9% from the line. More importantly, Tennessee turned the ball over just nine times.
Defense: Tennessee recovered to play an excellent defensive game after a somewhat rocky start. Florida shot 46.4% in the first half, yet 37.9% in the second half including just one made 3. Patric Young proved to be a tough matchup in the paint, especially after several questionable calls resulted in foul trouble for Stokes. Young finished with 15 points on 6-10 shooting, but only four of those came in the second half.
Tennessee’s defenders struggled to stay in front of Florida reserve guard Casey Prather, and he recorded 10 points on 5-7 shooting. With the exceptions of Young and Prather, the Vols made it difficult for the Gators to score. Erik Murphy was limited to seven points on 3-10 shooting before fouling out, and Kenny Boynton scored just two points on the night. The Gators were led by Mike Rosario. He finished with 16 points on a relatively inefficient 5-14 shooting.
The 58 points scored by Florida matched their season-low.
Final Take: Simply put, this was an impressive victory for Tennessee. They proved they can win when Golden and Stokes aren’t on their game offensively, and proved they have the ability to beat the elite teams in the nation. This wasn’t the best offensive effort we’ve seen from the Vols, but they gritted out the win thanks to determination, toughness, and defense—all staples of Cuonzo Martin’s coaching philosophy. With the victory, the Vols moved to 17-10 (9-6) and put themselves in position to earn an NCAA Tournament bid if they take care of business down the stretch.
Martin addressed Tennessee’s NCAA hopes in his post game press conference.
“When you look at this team and you say is this one of the 68 teams? Without a doubt, but you have to do your job. For us I say we have to keep it out of someone else’s hands. Lets control the situation.”
Up Next: The Vols play at Georgia, Saturday at 1:30 p.m. TV: SEC Network