In an authoritative voice shaped by two NCAA national titles, Billy Donovan declared Tennessee, “The best (SEC) team, right now, in my opinion,” back on Oct. 25.
That was before he knew the Vols would spend the 2012-13 season without their anchor, senior forward Jeronne Maymon.
It was well before UT slumped to an 11-10 start to the season.
At any rate, now four months after his declaration, he looks prophetic.
Right now, at least.
In front of a highly charged Thompson-Boling Arena crowd of 19,567, Tennessee scrapped past Donovan’s eighth-ranked Gators in a rousing 64-58 victory on Tuesday night. The raucous win pushed UT’s winning streak to six games, improved its record to 17-10 overall and 9-6 in the SEC and broke a three-way tie for fifth place in the league standings.
“It’s just a big win,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said with accompanying shrug.
Asked about the team’s blooming NCAA tournament hopes, Martin declared, “When you look at this team and you say is this one of the 68 teams? Without a doubt, but you have to do your job.”
Jordan McRae did the job Tuesday. The junior guard, UT’s only player in double figures, finished a sterling performance with a game-high 27 points on 9-of-20 shooting. He carried the Vols through offensive challenges in the first half and scored 10 of the team’s 29 second-half points.
UT needed every one of them.
Trailing 58-54 with 1 minute, 17 seconds remaining, Florida’s Kenny Boynton found himself alone on the wing for a 3-pointer in transition. A splash could have changed everything. It drew iron.
Taking possession with 1:05 remaining, McRae drove, but missed a layup.
Luckily for he and UT, Jarnell Stokes was there. The sophomore power forward ripped away an offensive rebound in the crowded paint and converted a three-point play, nearly blowing the lid off Thompson-Boling.
“I think that sealed the deal,” Stokes said.
A lean Gators roster missing freshman guard Michael Frazier II (concussion) and junior forward Will Yeguete (knee) was led by Mike Rosario’s 16 points. Patric Young added 15 points and five rebounds, but was matched for most of the night by Stokes.
The Vols sophomore forward finished with eight points and game-high 14 rebounds.
Defended all night by Tennessee point guard Trae Golden, Boynton, Florida’s second-leading scorer at 12.9 points per game, scored just two. Golden ended the night with eight points on 3-of-10 shooting.
“That’s just the growth of Trae Golden,” Martin said. “In the past if he wasn’t scoring, I don’t think he would have been as effective. But the way he played defensively, he was locked-in, and he still ran the team.”
Florida vs Tennessee, Feb. 26, 2013
Both teams finished the night shooting 42.0 percent from the field, but UT outrebounded the Gators, 41-31. Florida, the SEC’s top 3-point shooting team, finished 4-for-17 from beyond the arc.
“You’ve got to keep those guys off the 3-point line because that’s where they make their money, so to speak,” said Martin, who notched his second win over a top-10 opponent in his UT tenure. The other came last season against, coincidently, eighth-ranked Florida.
Florida, which entered the game with a two-game cushion in the SEC standings, fell 22-5, 12-3. The Gators, looking to avenge two losses to Tennessee last season, instead dropped their third straight to UT and 11th in the last 16 meetings.
In the opening 20 minutes, Florida boasted a balanced, crisp attack, but the Vols boasted McRae. He scored 17 of UT’s 35 points to help his team build a three-point halftime edge.
After watching the Gators build a 24-19 lead with 7:29 until the break, McRae poured in eight of the Vols’ next 10 points, including a pair of 3-pointers.
“In the first half I kind of took it upon myself to lead our team a little bit on the offensive end,” he said. “Tonight was just my night in the first half. Trae, he led us in overtime against A&M. Jarnell has done it before. Josh (Richardson) has done it before. We just have a team where, whoever is cooking that night, you give it to him.”
McRae didn’t just finish the half strong. He opened the game with a soaring one-handed dunk, spilling the crowd noise over the brim.
“That’s how you want to start a game,” he said, adding, “I got hype. We got hype.”
The victory continued a late-season surge garnering national attention. Tennessee began the week climbing 12 spots in the official NCAA RPI, from No. 69 to No. 57.
That number should improve dramatically next week if the Vols can avenge a 68-62 home loss to Georgia by knocking off the Bulldogs in Athens on Saturday. Included in UT’s six-game winning streak is three consecutive road wins.
“The key now is to keep rolling,” McRae said.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn