Tennessee sophomore Scotty Hopson was merely following orders when he hit the game-winning shot against Florida on Sunday afternoon.
Vols coach Bruce Pearl issued the command after calling timeout with 24.2 seconds remaining and the Vols down by one.
“I said to him, ‘Win this for us,’ and I drew up a shot for him,’’ Pearl said.
“And Scotty said, ‘yes sir,’ ” UT senior Wayne Chism added.
Hopson’s long jumper, over the out-stretched arm of 6-foot-9 Chandler Parsons, held up when Alex Tyus missed a short jumper with 2.5 seconds left.
Hopson grabbed the rebound and raced down the court, hurling the ball into the rafters of Thompson-Boling Arena after the buzzer sounded with 14th-ranked Tennessee on the winning end of a 61-60 victory over the Gators.
“That’s the first time Coach (Pearl) has said that to me,’’ said Hopson, who scored 10 points, pulled down four rebounds and had three assists. “I felt it was the biggest shot of my college career.’’
Pearl correctly assumed Florida coach Billy Donovan would come out of the timeout in a zone defense in an effort to prevent Chism from getting a shot off from close range.
After all, the Vols (16-4, 4-2 SEC) had done most of their damage inside in rallying from a 10-point deficit to defeat Florida (15-6, 4-3) in front of the CBS national television audience and crowd of 21,208.
The Gators, winners of four straight entering the day, had out-rebounded UT 20-14 in the first half and held a 22-16 advantage scoring in the paint, with Tyus scoring many of his team-high 18 points from close range.
“In the first half it was just me and Renaldo (Woolridge) down there rebounding, so it was like five on two,’’ said Chism who led the Vols with 16 points and 11 rebounds. “In the second half we started sending our guards in there.’’
Most notably, J.P. Prince, who responded with 12 points and seven rebounds.
Prince’s gritty performance led UT to a 27-12 rebounding advantage in the second half and the victory, according to Pearl.
“We write it on the board every day, that defense and rebounding wins championships,’’ Pearl said. “We had 14 second-chance points, and I’d imagine J.P. had six or eight of them; that’s just effort and toughness.’’
Prince scored inside on three consecutive trips down the floor early in the second half to help spark UT’s comeback.
The Gators, however, appeared determined to avoid losing for the eighth time in their nine contests against Pearl.
The Vols didn’t reclaim the lead until Skylar McBee hit a 3-pointer to give UT a 42-40 advantage with 12:13 remaining. It was UT’s first lead since 3½ minutes into the game.
The teams traded the lead four more times before Parsons drove the lane for two of his 14 points and tied the game at 57-57 with one minute left.
The Vols looked inside to score on their next possession, and Chism was fouled on a spin move to the basket.
Tennessee was just 2-of-10 from the free-throw line before Chism calmly drained both with 41.7 seconds left to put the Vols up 59-57.
“I just started talking to myself at the line,’’ Chism said. “I told myself I was going to make them.’’
Parsons had confidence, too. Having hit two last-second game-winners earlier this season, the Gators’ lanky forward answered with a 3-pointer that put Florida back on top, 60-59, with 29 seconds left.
Five seconds later, Pearl called timeout and put the outcome in Hopson’s hands.
“I thought he’d be more open . . . he made a play himself,’’ Pearl said. “It’s a big shot, but he’s going to have a lot more big shots.’’
The Vols return to action at 9 p.m. Thursday at LSU (9-12, 0-7) before returning to Thompson-Boling Arena to play South Carolina (13-8, 4-3) at 6 p.m. Saturday.