KNOXVILLE – The Vols are just a few weeks removed from being left for dead in the hunt to make the NCAA tournament.
After a 64-58 win over No. 8 Florida (22-5, 12-3 SEC), the sixth straight win for the Vols in total, Tennessee now finds itself squarely on the bubble for the Big Dance.
"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," coach Cuonzo Martin said when asked about Tennessee's NCAA tournament chances after the win on Tuesday night. "For us, I say we have to keep it out of someone else's hands. Lets control the situation."
The Vols did their job against Florida, playing one of their most complete games of the season in front of a rocking home crowd of over 19,000 on Tuesday night to knock off the SEC's top team.
It marks yet another not-so-surprising upset win for the Vols over the Gators. It’s the 11th time an unranked Tennessee team has knocked off a Florida team ranked in the AP Top 25. That’s the only thing Martin knows in this series – he’s now 3-0 against the Gators, with all of the wins coming as upsets over a ranked Florida team.
Maybe it shouldn't even be considered an upset anymore.
“I mean, I’m celebrating because we won, but that was the expectation,” said Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes after the win.
In the opening minutes Jordan McRae, who scored a game-high 27 points, stepped in front of an errant Florida pass, sprinted down the court and tomahawked in a thunderous dunk to give UT the early 2-0 lead and energize the crowd.
After a 9-0 Florida run to answer, it took UT (17-10, 9-6 SEC) the rest of the first half to regain the advantage, before finally pulling ahead for a 34-32 lead at the 1:45 mark of the first half. The Vols shot 44 percent from the field in the first half, while the Gators connected on 46 percent of their shots.
Florida briefly regained the lead early in the second half at 37-35, but the Vols took it back a few moments later and never looked back.
No Vol other than McRae scored in double figures, but eight points and 14 rebounds from Stokes helped the Vols sustain their lead down the stretch.
Florida junior center Patric Young (15 points, 5 rebounds) did an admirable job defending Stokes for much of the night. Stokes only played 24 total minutes after picking up two early fouls and a third at the 17:07 mark of the second half, but did enough to help UT claim a 41-31 edge on the glass.
"I actually thought we did a really good job on him defensively, we guarded him very, very well,” Florida coach Bily Donovan said of Stokes. “I thought the difference in the game was the rebounding part of it. We had a couple of times that we had some guys around him and he's obviously a big. strong guy.”
Stokes essentially iced the game for the Vols with a tough rebound and putback with just under a minute left. Florida forward Erik Murphy fouled out on the play and the Vols took a 61-56 lead after Stokes connected on his free throw.
Meanwhile, McRae continued his hot offensive run of late with a third straight game of 20 or more. The junior guard knocked down 9 of 20 shots from the field, 3 of 9 from behind the arc and 6 of his 8 free-throw attempts, including two in the final seconds that pushed UT’s lead to 64-56 with 12 seconds left.
"I think he is one of the best scorers in the conference,” Martin said of McRae. “I do not look at those numbers, but you saw what happened tonight – he is a guy who knows how to score. The growth of Jordan McRae as he is scoring, is he is taking good shots.”
Despite rising expectations and increased Tournament odds, the Vols have three crucial regular season games at Georgia, at Auburn and against Missouri in Knoxville before the postseason begins.
They’ll keep marching forward with their one-game-at-a-time mentality. There will be a few minutes to celebrate a huge win on Tuesday night, but it’s back to work Wednesday.
"We have Georgia on Saturday, so we're going to worry about that right now,” McRae concluded.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga