The Tennessee Volunteers will take on their bitter SEC rival Florida today in one of the most anticipated games of the season.
No. 2 Florida has already won the SEC regular season title, and Tennessee is currently tied for third in both the SEC East and the conference overall. Coach Bruce Pearl said he believed the win over Arkansas would put Tennessee in the NCAA tournament no matter what, but nothing is guaranteed.
“It was a huge win for us,” Pearl said. “We approached (the game) with our backs against the wall. The last thing I said, ‘Win it, and we’re in it.’ Our kids played one of the best games of the year.”
In their first meeting of last year, Tennessee handed Florida its first loss of the season. It was a surprise at the time because Florida was the only undefeated team left in the country at 17-0. Chris Lofton scored 29 points in that game and Dane Bradshaw hit a layup to give Tennessee a 78-76 lead in the closing seconds.
In the second meeting of the season, Tennessee clinched the SEC East with a 76-72 win on the road. Bradshaw hit another layup down the stretch to give Tennessee a lead. Tennessee was once again led by Lofton in scoring with 16. Nine out of 10 of his shots were for three in that game.
This year, Lofton has tried to become more of a versatile player, and his ability to penetrate will be one of the keys to the game. Corey Brewer is one of the best defenders in the nation and will likely be on Lofton for most of the game. Lofton was still hurt earlier in the year when Tennessee traveled to Gainesville for its first meeting with Florida, and he did not play. He has led Tennessee in scoring in the last two games, both of which were UT victories.
Tennessee has also done a great job at forcing turnovers as of late. Alabama and Arkansas both had season highs in turnovers when they played Tennessee.
After the second Tennessee loss, Florida came together and ended up going on an 11-game winning streak that included the SEC and NCAA titles.
Florida has 93 percent of its scoring back from last season. Every single Florida starter has had a career high of 20 or more points in a game; they are a very balanced team known for working the ball inside-out and always making the extra pass.
Al Horford and Noah are bigger and arguably more physical players than Wayne Chism and Duke Crews for Tennessee. In the 94-78 loss earlier in the season Tennessee could not find a way to stop Horford. Horford had a career-high 22 points in that game to go along with 13 rebounds. He made it a point to be physical — he had 16 free throw attempts in the game.
Tennessee will have to pick its poison when it comes to defending Florida. If they play zone, Florida’s three-point shooters could have a field day, and if they play man-to-man, Horford and Noah could dominate like last game.
A crowd of 25,000 is expected and the atmosphere should be beyond intense. Last season the team, captained by coach Pearl, brought pizza for the loyal students waiting hours in advance to get in the game. This year the Lady Volunteers have promised to do something to repay coach Pearl for his shirtless appearance at one of their games earlier in the season. Pat Summitt in a sports bra? Only time will tell.
“It’s gonna be a great feeling,” Lofton said of tonight’s match-up. “Hopefully we can come out ready for this game. If you can’t get excited for this, there is something wrong with you.”