Vols Regain Top Spot in SEC East With 79-75 Win Over Florida

March 1, 2009

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) -- Florida's Dan Werner bumped into Tennessee's Tyler Smith during pregame warmups. Maybe it was an accident. Maybe not.

Either way, it seemed to be all the motivation Smith needed.

"He was trying to punk me or something," Smith said. "Nobody's going to intimidate me."

Certainly not the Gators. At least not in this series.

Smith scored 19 points, Wayne Chism added 18 and Tennessee snapped Florida's 17-game home-winning streak with a 79-75 victory Sunday.

The Volunteers won on the road for the first time in four games and moved into a tie with South Carolina atop the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division. More importantly, the Vols (18-10, 9-5) strengthened their NCAA tournament resume with their fifth consecutive win against the Gators (21-8, 8-6).

Florida made it close, though. The Gators trailed 59-43 midway through the second half, but used a barrage of big shots to cut it to 75-72 with one minute remaining. But Scotty Hopson tipped Erving Walker's tying 3-point attempt, then Nick Calathes misfired on a baseline drive.

Smith, energized the entire game, hit 3 of 4 free throws in the final 17 seconds to close it out.

"I'm just trying to lead this team," Smith said. "I am one of the veterans on this team and I'm just trying to help the team win any way I can."

There was little Smith could do to get the Vols back home, though. Players and coaches walked out of the O'Connell Center and got on their bus, but returned a few minutes later after receiving news that snow kept their chartered plane on the runway in Atlanta, delaying their departure.

It was unclear how long they had to wait before leaving Gainesville.

The Gators had other concerns, mainly whether this loss would doom their NCAA tournament hopes. Florida might need to win their final two games at Mississippi State and against Kentucky, or make a run in the conference tournament, to solidify a berth.

"It's our season," said Chandler Parsons, who had 13 points and nine rebounds. "We've got to put all our focus on Mississippi State. We know what's at stake. We've got to learn from this tape and get better. The margin of error is getting really small now."

Calathes led the Gators with 20 points and seven assists. Walker added 16.

"They outplayed us," Calathes said. "They outrebounded us. I think they did a lot of better things than us."

Tennessee has won seven of the last eight in the series and now has a sweep of Florida to go along with key wins against South Carolina and Marquette. The Vols also have one of the league's strongest RPIs (29) and strength of schedules (2).

They can win the SEC East with victories against South Carolina and Alabama. If they play like they did in the first half against Florida, the Vols might make it look easy, too.

Tennessee used runs of 20-5 and 14-4 in the opening 20 minutes to build a 12-point lead at the break. The Vols made 12 of their first 20 shots, including 5 of 7 from behind the arc.

Hopson and Smith hit 3s early in the second half to push the lead to 16. The Vols were 9 of 12 from 3-point range at that stage -- a huge boost for a team that has struggled to shoot from long range most of the season. Tennessee entered the game last in the SEC in 3-point shooting.

"If they shoot the ball well, they would be hard to beat for anybody," Florida coach Billy Donovan said.

Tennessee cooled off down the stretch, which allowed Florida to make another run.

Walker got hot from outside, and Calathes started driving and distributing. Florida cut the lead to three points three times in the final 1:40. Chism responded with a baseline bank shot the first time and hit a free throw the second time. Smith made his free throws to end any chance of a comeback.

"We made it close, but for most of the game, they were in control," Donovan said. "When they needed to get something done, they got it done."

The Volunteers, who made a season-high 12 3-pointers in the first meeting in January, finished 10 of 19 from behind the arc in the rematch. Smith (3 of 4) and Chism (1 of 1) were a combined 4 of 5 from 3-point range.

Smith added seven rebounds and three assists. Maybe Werner should try to avoid him altogether during warmups next season.

"We're getting great leadership from Tyler Smith," Vols coach Bruce Pearl said. "Tyler has become more vocal the last few games and understood that we play best when everyone contributes."





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