GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Tennessee won its first outright regular-season SEC men's basketball Championship in 41 years by saving its best for last Wednesday night.
The No. 4 Vols made a dramatic second-half charge to pull out an 89-86 victory over Florida before a sellout crowd of 12,046 at the O'Connell Center.
Mississippi State's 86-85 overtime loss to Vanderbilt earlier Wednesday night set up UT's opportunity to clinch the outright title.
But Tennessee couldn't don the SEC crown until Nick Calathes, who scored a game-high 24 points, missed a 3-pointer in the final seconds and the Vols took possession and ran out the clock.
"Our players had a will and determination to win that championship tonight,'' UT coach Bruce Pearl said. "We didn't want to wait until Sunday.''
Perhaps not, but the Vols (27-3, 13-2 SEC) waited until the second half to snap out of their doldrums after Florida (21-9, 8-7) raced out to a 55-42 half-time lead.
"There were some calls, some plays they made and then their crowd got involved,'' said JaJuan Smith, who led UT with 23 points. "We just fought through it and picked each other up.
"We're SEC Champs!''
The Vols, who trailed by as many as 16 in the first half, opened the second half on a 7-0 tear to trail 55-49 after a Ramar Smith steal led to a Tyler Smith turnaround with 18 minutes left.
The teams continued to battle over the next 10 minutes, exchanging baskets and hard fouls with the crowd growing louder at each exchange.
Finally, UT appeared to wear down the young Gators.
A Lofton 3-pointer at the 8:16 mark pulled the Vols to 69-68 and ignited a 14-0 run. Wayne Chism capped the burst - which included eight consecutive points from JaJuan Smith - with a basket inside to put the Vols up 79-69 with 6:11 left.
Florida, fighting for an NCAA at-large bid, fired back with an 8-0 run that cut UT's lead to 79-77 with 3:30 left. The Gators' charge included a physical exchange between Dan Werner and Tyler Smith that led to double technical fouls.
"I didn't want to fight, but we were trying to win,'' Tyler Smith said. "He (Werner) had that hard foul on J.P. in the last game, so that was twice for him.''
The Vols had taken an 85-82 lead on two Lofton free throws before Calathes drained a 3-pointer to tie the game at 85-85 with 1:46 left.
Chism and Calathes traded missed shots on the next two possessions before JaJuan Smith was fouled and sent to the free throw line with 44.1 seconds left.
JaJuan Smith missed both, but Tyler Smith knifed through for the rebound on the second miss and scored on a putback to put UT up 87-85.
Marreese Speights split a pair of free throws with 27.2 seconds left to pull Florida to 87-86, and then Chism took a hard foul at the other end with 18.5 seconds on the clock.
Chism, a .493 free throw shooter, calmly sank both shots to extend the lead to 89-86.
"I couldn't even hear the crowd because my ears were ringing,'' Chism said. "Coach (Steve) Forbes had worked with me on my free throws, so I wasn't worried.''
Werner charged at the other end, but UT turned the ball over on the ensuing inbounds, giving Florida the opportunity for Calathes' errant 3-point attempt.
"The difference in the game was three things,'' Gators coach Billy Donovan said. "To start the second half, Tyler Smith got them close with a lot of plays around the basket.
"And then JaJuan Smith and Lofton made some difficult shots. Those two guys do it every game, and it's a special and unique quality. You have to give them credit.''
In addition to winning their school-record 27th game, the Vols also clinched the top seed in the SEC East.
UT opens play in the SEC tournament at the Georgia Dome with a 1 p.m. game March 14 against the winner of the March 13 game between the West's No. 4 team (Ole Miss or LSU) and the East's No. 5 (South Carolina or Georgia).
The Vols will close out the regular season at 2 p.m. Sunday at Thompson-Boling Arena when they put their 31-game home-court win streak on the line against the Gamecocks (13-16, 5-10).