GAINSEVILLE, Fla. — Tyler Smith didn’t need a kick in the pants — he just needed a bump in pregame warm-ups.
According to UT coaches and players, Florida’s Dan Werner went out of his way to bump into Smith while the Vols were in their shoot-around Sunday.
“He was trying to punk me or something,’’ said Smith, who got into an exchange with Werner last year. “Nobody is gonna intimidate me, regardless. When it comes down to it, it’s on.’’
The Vols were on, playing arguably their best basketball of the season in scoring a 79-75 victory over the Gators before a sellout crowd of 12,490 at the O’Connell Center.
UT hit 10 of 19 shots beyond the 3-point arc to improve to 18-10, 9-5 SEC, and snap Florida's (21-8, 8-6) 17-game homecourt win streak. The victory also moved UT into a first-place tie in the Eastern Division with South Carolina (20-7, 9-5), where the Vols play 7 p.m. Thursday.
“Obviously, that was a real special performance,’’ said Vols coach Bruce Pearl, who has won seven of eight against the Gators. “Our backs are against the wall, and our kids really responded.’’
Smith scored 19 points and pulled down seven rebounds, and Wayne Chism had 18 points to lead the Vols. Eight UT players scored six points or more.
J.P. Prince’s drive at the 14:42 mark gave the Vols an 11-9 advantage, and UT didn’t trail after that.
“Their crowd really helped us get our energy level up,’’ said Prince, who led Tennessee with five assists. “We saw all those T-shirts they handed out, we knew they hadn’t lost here, and we weren’t gonna let them celebrate on us.’’
Said Pearl: “I think our pride kicked in.’’
UT cruised to a 45-33 halftime lead on Josh Tabb’s 3-pointer at the buzzer. The Vols led by as many as 16 in the second half when Chism hit a pair of free throws to make it 59-43 with 11:31 left.
The Gators cut the lead back into single digits with a 10-2 run that Nick Calathes (20 points, seven assists) sparked with a 3-pointer.
Diminutive guard Erving Walker heated up late, scoring 11 of his 16 points in the final four minutes, including a baseline drive on Scotty Hopson that pulled Florida within three points with 55 seconds left.
A UT turnover ensued, and the Gators had the ball with a chance to tie for the first time since five minutes into the game.
Florida set up Walker for a 3-point shot attempt in the corner, but the 6-foot-7 Hopson came soaring over for a block.
Chism was fouled and split a pair of free throws with 21.6 seconds left to make it 76-72.
Calathes missed on his drive, and Smith rebounded and was fouled. Smith sank both free throws to make it 78-72 with 16.3 seconds left.
Walker hit an off-balance 3-pointer to pull Florida back within three, but Smith was fouled again with 7.3 seconds left and split his free throws to ice the game.
Different players starred at different times for UT, with Bobby Maze hitting a trey to open the Vols’ scoring en route to scoring all eight of his points in the first half.
“Their crowd was talking a lot, saying stuff about my mother and my hometown,’’ Maze said. “They said Allen Iverson cut his braids, and I didn’t cut mine. That got me fired up.’’
The Vols showed an enthusiasm not often seen from them this season, and it started with Smith before the game.
“I asked Coach before the game started to give me some time to talk to the guys,’’ Smith said. “I wanted to let them know, they don’t have to look for just me. They can do things on their own out there.
“When we play together, you see what can happen.’’
UT associate head coach said Smith’s words and play ignited the team.
“Tyler was still talking to them at the end of the game, telling them ‘We ain’t gonna lose,’ during the last timeouts,’’ Jones said. “Tyler was an unbelievable leader; we’ve just got to get him to open his mouth more often.’’
Notebook: The Vols were delayed in their return to Knoxville on account of their charter flight being grounded in Atlanta by poor weather. Assistant coach Steve Forbes, who had been out recruiting, was on the plane when it was delayed and did not make it to the game.