The Florida Gators were in town, ESPN College Basketball GameDay showed up and fans staged a “White-Out,’’ wearing OUTLIVE cancer screening T-shirts.
“Everyone felt the energy,’’ Tennessee junior Tyler Smith said. “We were having fun again.’’
The good times led to the Vols continuing their dominance over the Gators with a convincing 79-63 victory Saturday before a less-than-capacity crowd of 20,984 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
UT’s fourth-consecutive win over Florida — and coach Bruce Pearl’s sixth out of seven games against Gators coach Billy Donovan — brought the Vols (13-7, 4-2 SEC) within a half a game of SEC East Division leaders Florida (18-4, 5-2), Kentucky (16-6, 5-2) and South Carolina (16-4, 5-2).
Scotty Hopson led the Vols with a career-high 20 points, including a 4-for-6 performance beyond the 3-point arc as UT hit a season-high 12 treys.
Smith scored 16, Wayne Chism had 12, Bobby Maze added 11 and J.P. Prince dished out nine assists.
The Vols led by as many as 23 points in the second half on two occasions, after a Hopson trey capped a 10-2 run to make it 49-26 at the 16:01 mark, and again at the 14:36 mark when Cameron Tatum hit a 3-pointer to make it 52-29.
“We knew this was a must win, and you can put the ‘must’ in bold letters,’’ said Tatum, who scored nine points on 3-of-6 shooting beyond the 3-point arc. “Since the Old Spice Classic (Thanksgiving weekend in Orlando, Fla.), that was the first time we got back to Tennessee basketball, sharing the ball, and everyone playing good.’’
The Vols had lost four of their last five home games entering the game.
Florida, meanwhile, had won 12 of its last 13. But the Gators had cooled off considerably by the second half, as they couldn’t get closer than 10 when a Nick Calathes drive made it 64-54 with 4:41 left.
The Vols led from the opening tip and were up 39-22 by the half, holding the Gators to their lowest first-half points of the season.
Chism had five of his 12 points through the first 20 minutes, but he was busy doing his damage everywhere else, particularly on Calathes.
Chism drew a defensive foul on Calathes at the 18:22 mark, and 1½ minutes later, Chism drew a charge from Florida’s all-star point guard, sending Calathes to the bench with his second foul.
Pearl said he chose to switch on the Gators’ ball screens, taking advantage of Chism’s athleticism on the perimeter.
“Wayne is a very special player because he’s a big man that can move his feet, and that’s rare,’’ Pearl said. “There are very few centers in this league that can guard a point guard, and he can.’’
When Calathes returned to the game late in the first half, it wasn’t long before Chism caused him more problems, guarding the inbounds pass tightly and forcing a five-second violation on Calathes.
Calathes, who leads the SEC in assists and finished with a game-high 21 points, turned the ball over four times and scored just six points in the first half when the game was in the balance.
“I think it was a combination of our guys not shooting well and Tennessee playing very good defense,’’ Donovan said. “You have to give them credit, they stepped up and knocked down some 3-pointers, and that was big for them.’’
The Vols return to action at 8 p.m. Wednesday when they travel to Fayetteville to play Arkansas (13-6, 1-5).