Jarnell Stokes sat, and Tennessee soared.
It was the unlikeliest of scenarios. But no UT fan in the crowd of 19,567 would complain about the result: a 64-58 upset of eighth-ranked Florida on Tuesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Vols followed an unfamiliar path to victory in boosting their record to 17-10 overall and 9-6 in the SEC.
In the biggest of games, you assume UT’s big three of Stokes, Jordan McRae and Trae Golden have to be at the their best offensively. Their increased production in UT’s five-game winning streak proved that.
However, No. 6 came via different means.
McRae was as good as ever, scoring a game-high 27 points. But Golden made only three of 10 field-goal attempts and power forward Stokes played just 24 minutes due to early foul trouble.
Everybody else took up the slack. The extra effort from varied sources became more apparent when Stokes went to the bench early in the second half.
Backup post players Yemi Makanjuola and Kenny Hall were both up to the challenge. And they made an immediate impression.
Makanjuola quickly blocked a shot from 6-foot-9, 247-pound Patric Young; seconds later, Hall dunked at the other end against a late-arriving Florida defense.
Just like that, the Vols were up by six points.
Hall struck again for two points on a baseline jump shot that appeared out of his range when he let it fly. Plays like that kept Florida at bay.
And Gators coach Billy Donovan probably didn’t help his cause when he rested Young for four minutes while Stokes was on the bench.
Both Stokes and Young returned to the game with 9:15 to play and resumed their fierce battle for position beneath the basket. Stokes had the advantage down the stretch.
Although Stokes scored only eight points, he had a game-high 14 rebounds, including nine in 13 minutes of the second half.
His defense also was a factor in containing Young. After scoring 11 points in the first half, Young had just four more in the second.
His offensive struggles couldn’t be attributed solely to Stokes.
“When Yemi and Kenny come in, they’re not the scorer Jarnell is,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin said. “But they’re good defenders. So you don’t lose anything there.”
UT only lost ground at the beginning when it fell behind by 9-2 and 18-11 margins, mainly because Florida cashed in on uncontested 3-pointers.
Once the Vols tightened up the perimeter defense, Florida struggled offensively. And it never could match UT’s rebounding. Thanks to Stokes, Tennessee outrebounded the Gators 41-31.
Florida vs Tennessee, Feb. 26, 2013
UT’s biggest win of the season was even bigger because of the circumstances. It held its own with Stokes on the bench for 16 minutes.
The Vols also proved they could defend Florida’s guards, who have bedeviled most of its conference competition.
“We beat a very talented team,” Martin said. “A team with a lot of parts.”
But the Vols had just as many parts Tuesday night.