Thursday March 6th, 2008

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Even as he and his Tennessee teammates faced a double-digit deficit Wednesday, JaJuan Smith couldn't stop talking about championships. Almost every time the Volunteers huddled, Smith looked at the clock. He announced the minutes and added the words "to a championship."

"There was a countdown going on," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said.

It may sound like a little thing -- a regular-season conference title for the fourth-ranked team in the nation. After all, weren't the Vols supposed to do this? Of course they were. But down 13 at the half at a rowdy O'Connell Center to a Florida team playing for its NCAA tournament life, the Vols needed a reason to fight. At Alabama on Jan. 29, it was the knowledge that Tennessee had lost 17 of its past 18 trips to Coleman Coliseum. At Memphis on Feb. 23, it was the knowledge that a win would earn the Vols the first No. 1 ranking in school history.

Wednesday, the carrot Pearl dangled before his players was the school's first outright SEC regular-season title in 41 years. With that crown in mind, the Vols tightened their defense and kept chucking shots that would have gotten them benched if they played for any other coach. As usual, those shots fell, and Tennessee pulled out an 89-86 heartstopper.

So did the one-week (or more like 36-hour) stay atop the basketball world teach Tennessee any valuable lessons about the fickleness of fate or the need to be ever-vigilant against complacency? Is that how they managed to avoid an upset at home Saturday against Kentucky and another Wednesday in Gainesville? No, Pearl said.

"It didn't last long enough to learn anything from," he said. "[Losing the No. 1 ranking] had nothing to do with any of the outcomes. ... It makes for a good story, but it's not accurate."

Instead, Pearl suggested several reasons for Tennessee's resilience.

"What I'd like you to do, please, is focus on JaJuan Smith," Pearl said, so proud he looked as if he might burst through his orange suspenders. "Focus on Tyler Smith. Focus on Chris Lofton. Focus on Wayne Chism making the two free throws. Focus on those kids, because they had a will and a determination to win this championship here."

OK. Let's start with JaJuan Smith. A clerical error three minutes in gave him two fouls when he really had one and forced him to the bench. Tyler Smith actually committed one of the fouls, but when you start three players named Smith, these things happen. Smith could only watch as the Gators kept throwing haymakers. Florida, in danger of having its NCAA tournament streak snapped at nine, made its first nine shots. Officials corrected their mistake with 12:45 remaining and JaJuan Smith returned, but the Vols already trailed by nine.

"I'm starting to think Coach Pearl's a genius," JaJuan Smith said. "He came in telling us they were going to come out making shots in the first half. ... They come out 9-for-9. How does he know that?"

The Vols also knew the Gators would cool. In the second half, they did, and Tennessee chipped away at the lead. With 7:44 remaining, JaJuan Smith (23 points) came off a Tyler Smith screen and drained a jumper to give the Vols their first lead at 70-69. On Tennessee's next possession, JaJuan Smith made a fall away 25-footer while wearing a Florida defender. He was covered just as well on the Vols' next possession, when he drilled a three-pointer from the right wing. "That's JaJuan," Chism said before explaining that his teammate ends every practice by swishing a seemingly impossible trey, occasionally with a hand in his face. "It's bottom of the net. If he hits one, it's game [over]."

Who's next, coach? Oh, that's right, Tyler Smith. The Iowa transfer scored 13 points and grabbed eight rebounds, but the two points and one board that mattered most came with 43 seconds remaining and the score tied at 85. JaJuan Smith missed a free throw, but Tyler Smith sneaked between a pair of Gators, grabbed the ball and dropped it in to give Tennessee the lead for good.

"Any really, really good team has answers at a lot of positions," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "They have a lot of answers."

Answer No. 3 on Wednesday was Lofton. The SEC's career three-point king contributed his usual assortment of hand-in-his-face daggers and finished with 21 points. Lofton's best shot -- a top-of-the-key trey over a fast-closing defender with 3:14 remaining -- sucked the air back out of building, which had started rocking again after the Baby Gators regrouped and mounted a second charge.

"When you go on the road, it's always you against the world," Lofton said. "That's how you've got to take it. Everybody hates you. That's the way we like it."

The crowd didn't bother Chism as he stepped to the line to ice the win. He couldn't hear the fans through the ringing in his ears. As Chism closed in for one last layup with 16.5 seconds remaining, Florida forward Dan Werner fouled him hard. As Chism crashed to the floor, the knee of Florida center Marreese Speights collided with Chism's right temple, setting off a carol of the bells. Chism, who entered Wednesday making 49 percent of his free throws, hit both shots.

After the horn, Tennessee associate athletic director John Currie approached Pearl with some news. Vanderbilt's Shan Foster had hit a last-second three to beat Mississippi State, meaning the Vols had just claimed the SEC title. Pearl's reaction? "The same reaction I always have, and that's emotional," he said. "I'm feeling quite blessed."

By now, Pearl already has begun the painstaking process of choosing the next carrot to dangle in front of his players. Saturday, he can go with the tried-and-true "Win it for the seniors on Senior Day" or the more topical "Let's try to go undefeated at home for the season." Next week's SEC tournament should be easy. In two previous trips, Pearl's team hasn't lasted past its first game. After that comes the NCAA tournament, where Tennessee has yet to play past the Sweet 16.

Late Wednesday night, Pearl didn't want to think about any of that. He wanted his players to cherish a championship. He wanted to share his joy with his parents, Bernie and Barbara, who drove from Boynton Beach, Fla., to watch the Vols win a title.

"Because we were expected to win, let's not enjoy it any less," Pearl said. "Sometimes that's what happens. Celebrate this."

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