Kenny Hall on his season-high against Florida
The rude awakening dealt out to a pair of Tennessee starters turned out to be an effective wake-up call for the Vols.
Cuonzo Martin shuffled the starting lineup for the first time this season, and the Vols responded with a convincing 67-56 men's basketball victory over 13th-ranked Florida in a rare Saturday morning tip at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The announced crowd of 17,689 recognized Martin's first win over a ranked opponent in his four-year head-coaching career with a standing ovation as the final seconds ticked off in their SEC opener.
"I don't think there have been too many times like that this year that we've played like that from a passion standpoint, playing for each other and defending the way we did,'' said Martin, who was 0-5 against Top 25 teams entering Saturday. "Once I make (lineup) moves, I make them. It's not for sound bites, not a scare tactic ... I didn't do this to shake somebody up.''
Whatever the intention, it had a desirable effect for Tennessee (8-7, 1-0 SEC), which was in need of a pick-me-up following Wednesday's 69-51 loss at rival Memphis.
UT junior center Kenny Hall reacted to his benching by scoring a season-high 13 points and pulling down five rebounds.
"Obviously I did pretty good coming off the bench; that might be my forte,'' said Hall, who watched senior Renaldo Woolridge start in his place, "It's whatever Coach wants, and whatever it takes.''
Sophomore guard Jordan McRae, unseated by freshman Josh Richardson, scored 10 points and
helped hold the Gators' leading scorer, Kenny Boynton, below his season average (19.5 points) as Florida fell to 12-4, 0-1.
"I definitely needed Coach to do what he did,'' said McRae, who sat out 12 minutes of the first half. "It definitely sent a message; it's a reality check. The whole time I was sitting over there, I was just thinking, 'when I get in, I'm not going to worry about scoring, I'm just going to guard my man.' "
Vols point guard Trae Golden scored 12 points and dished out seven assists, and power forward Jeronne Maymon had 12 points and seven rebounds, matching the numbers put up by Patric Young, Florida's projected first-round NBA draft pick.
Woolridge and Hall also played roles in stopping the chiseled 6-foot-9, 247-pound Young in isolated matchups in the paint, which was a large part of the gamble in Martin's game plan to throttle the nation's top 3-point shooting team (11.3 makes per game).
"It was a wake-up call, and it worked,'' Hall said when asked about being taken out of the starting lineup. "Patric Young is a monster down there, and we knew we had to match his physical toughness.''
While UT's bigs kept Young in check, the Vols stepped up their ball-screen defense on the perimeter. It resulted in the Gators shooting a season-low 35.7 percent from the floor and scoring a season-low 56 points.
Boynton and lanky forward Erik Murphy shared scoring honors for Florida with 13 points apiece.
When freshman Wes Washpun's only basket put the Vols up 30-29 with 1:15 left in the first half, few would have guessed UT would hold the lead for the remainder of the game.
The Vols were up 33-29 at the half on the strength of 10 points apiece from Maymon and Golden. But when Florida scored the first bucket of the second half, it appeared the Gators were on the comeback trail.
Instead, UT responded with a 9-3 run, going up 42-34 on Cam Tatum's drive with 17 minutes left.
Florida failed to draw closer than seven points the rest of the game, at one point going 8 minutes, 13 seconds, without a field goal. The Vols led by 16 when McRae scored with 1:51 remaining.
"I'm more disappointed with our defense than anything else in the game,'' said Florida coach Billy Donovan, whose Gators dropped to 0-4 in road games and allowed UT to shoot 51 percent from the floor. "Both teams played hard, but the difference was the defense.''
That had to be music to Martin's ears, as he has continued to emphasize a defense-first mentality.
"More than anything, I think that's a step we had to really sell them on, the importance of defending at a high level,'' Martin said. "Maybe you're missing shots, but you've still got to defend hard.''
Tennessee returns to action at 9 p.m. Thursday at No. 15 Mississippi State. The Bulldogs were 13-2 heading into their SEC opener at Arkansas (11-3) late Saturday night.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/mikegriffith32