As a ball hurled from Jordan McRae’s right hand disappeared high into the Thompson-Boling Arena rafters, the Florida Gators languished over to the bench, ready to disappear from the floor.
Bearing a befuddled mien, they lined up, shook hands with Tennessee’s still-celebrating players and exited stage left.
The Gators came to Knoxville looking for a test on Tuesday night. They left with a lesson that reminded everyone what UT basketball is still about.
Through the Vols’ ballyhooed six-game winning streak, a reemergence of offensive firepower has drawn the praise. In order to knock off fifth-ranked Florida, though, Tennessee had to go back to the roots planted by coach Cuonzo Martin.
This is a team built on defense. That’s why scoring 64 points was enough to beat high-octane Florida by six, 64-58.
Tie off, jacket ditched, Florida coach Billy Donovan said afterward, “Rebounding and our inability to make shots, especially in the second half, I thought was the difference.”
The Gators scored a season-low 26 second-half points.
They entered the night averaging 74.0 points per game, 49.9 percent shooting and a plus-20.6 scoring margin against SEC competition. They scored 58, shot 42.1 percent and lost by six at Tennessee (17-10, 9-6 SEC).
That prolific transition offense and dead-eye 3-point shooting? Florida scored five fastbreak points and made just one second-half 3-pointer.
Remember what Martin said during UT’s preseason media day?
“Do what you do on the floor — but we all have to defend at a high level.”
The Vols were next level against Florida.
Through this ongoing six-game winning streak, McRae, Jarnell Stokes and Trae Golden each have led Tennessee in scoring twice. The one constant all along has been defense — Martin’s bedrock. Opponents have been held to 63.3 points per game through the streak. Texas A&M is the only team to score more than 72. It only took the Aggies four overtimes to reach their 85 points.
Tuesday was a defining defensive performance.
During a stout four-minute defensive stretch, the Vols held Florida scoreless from the 17:30 mark of the second half until there was 13:31 remaining. UT used that time to turn a 37-37 tie into a 43-37 advantage.
The Vols held the lead for the remainder of the evening.
Prior to Tuesday night, the Gators made at least five 3-pointers in each of their 26 games. They made 10 or more 10 times.
They were 4-for-17 against the Vols.
The numbers get worse.
Florida’s 11 assists were tied for the Gators’ third fewest of the year. It’s 26 second-half points also were tied for its third lowest.
Florida vs Tennessee, Feb. 26, 2013
Individually, only power forward Patric Young found traction against the UT defense. With a build sculpted by Michelangelo, the 6-foot-9, 249-pound statue scored 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting. Reserve forward Casey Prather found his way to 10 points, but left the game late with a nasty gash on his forehead after an on-the-floor scrum.
Florida’s Mike Rosario finished with a team-high 16 points, but took 15 shots to do so. He was bated into numerous ill-advised shots.
Kenny Boynton, Erik Murphy and Scottie Wilbekin were collectively held 17.5 points under their season scoring average. Boynton’s travails were glaring.
Defended by UT point guard Trae Golden, he scored two points on 1-for-7 shooting. He had made at least one 3-pointer in 24 games this season. He was 0-for-4 against Tennessee
Swarming the perimeter and getting back in transition, the Vols’ new-look four-guard rotation was able to stymie Florida.
“It definitely helped us,” McRae said. “We were switching a lot of stuff.”
And don’t expect that to change. Next up is Georgia, the last team to beat UT, on Saturday (TV: WVLT, 1:30 p.m.). Behind 24 points from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the Bulldogs fought past the Vols 68-62 on Feb. 6.
All that offense is great.
Defense is better.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn.