Sunday February 13th, 2011

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Moments after the kind of game that determines which seed line a team will land on in March, the opposing coaches sounded like men who think their teams are headed in opposite directions.

"I love coaching these guys. I really do," Florida's Billy Donovan said after the Gators' 61-60 win against Tennessee. "There's a fighting mentality in them. They have a fighting spirit. Even when things aren't going well, they never quit on me. They never quit on each other. ... They're resilient. They are. They don't always do it pretty. They don't always do it perfectly. But you know what? That, to me, is an incredible quality."

Meanwhile, Tennessee's Bruce Pearl lamented the Volunteers' final, frantic possession following 5-foot-8 Florida guard Erving Walker's lefty rainbow layup with 14.7 seconds remaining.

"We didn't run what was called," Pearl said. "I considered calling timeout late in the possession because it obviously not what I wanted, but I went ahead and let it go. I don't second-guess what we called, because if we'd executed what was called in transition, I have every confidence we would have scored or gotten fouled. Every confidence."

Pearl wanted a quick inbound to point guard Melvin Goins, who was to pass to either Cameron Tatum or Scotty Hopson. Whichever of the two got the ball was supposed to push up the floor at Florida forward Chandler Parsons, who had been limping since sustaining a deep thigh bruise in the game's opening minutes courtesy of a knee from teammate Alex Tyus.

None of that happened.

"We didn't inbound the ball to Melvin after the made basket," Pearl said. "We didn't go to our spots. We didn't run it."

Goins wound up launching from the top of the key. The ball clanged off the back of the rim. The buzzer sounded. Florida's bench emptied onto the floor. Several players on Tennessee's bench crumpled to the floor.

It was only one game near the home stretch of a long season, and a few different bounces could have changed the result, but it somehow felt more significant than that for both teams. Maybe it was the Tennessee assistant coaches trudging silently -- save for a choice under-the-breath epithet -- from the team locker room to the coaches' locker room. Maybe it was Florida's dogpile at midcourt to celebrate a defensive stop.

Maybe it was Pearl, who said this: "This is one of the more disappointing losses of my career."

Maybe it was Donovan, who said this: "This group of guys three years ago could not function in a college practice. Now they're competing for a league championship."

Only one Tennessee starter (Hopson) started last year. The Volunteers are athletic, but they lack chemistry in much the same way that some of Florida's less-athletic teams of recent vintage lacked chemistry.

Florida has benefited from a wealth of experience most major-college programs simply can't accumulate in this one-and-done climate. Of course, there probably is a reason for that; none of Florida's veterans have gone pro because most don't stand a chance at being drafted. So experience is a huge reason Florida leads the SEC, but it isn't the only one. The addition of key youngsters willing to do the dirty work (guard Scotty Wilbekin and forward Patric Young) turned the Gators from a just-make-the-NCAA-Tournament team to a potentially-playing-de-facto-home-games-as-a-high-seed-in-Tampa team.

Florida's leader is Parsons, who entered Saturday coming off games of 18 points and 11 rebounds, 17 points and 12 rebounds and 14 points and 12 rebounds. Thanks to the unfortunate meeting between Parsons' thigh and Tyus' knee, Parsons spent most of Saturday as a decoy -- and, as we learned from Pearl, a target.

Parsons made just one basket (a second-half three-pointer) and grabbed only three rebounds, but he dragged himself from one end of the floor to the other for 37 minutes. (We'll pause here to consider whether Parsons has suffered more at the hands of his teammates than any other player in the country. Saturday, the Tyus knee left a bruise so deep that Donovan is worried Parsons may miss a game eight days later. In a Jan. 25 win at Georgia, Parsons took a far more personal shot from a towel snapped by jubilant teammate Vernon Macklin.

Parsons also may have made the game's headiest play. With Florida trailing 60-59, Tyus missed a pair of free throws. After Tennessee collected the rebound, Parsons noticed Tatum had the ball near midcourt. Parsons had to have seen Tatum (a 70.4 percent free-throw shooter) clutching his right wrist during the previous few possessions. Tatum had made no secret of it, and Parsons had been on the same side of the floor every possession. Parsons used Florida's ninth team foul to stop the clock and send Tatum to the line for a one-and-one. Tatum, favoring his wrist, missed to the left.

But Florida didn't win just because of veteran savvy. The Gators' youngest player also played a critical role.

Wilbekin skipped his senior year of high school to enroll at Florida, and Saturday's second half, he found himself assigned to Hopson -- Tennessee's best scorer -- for 11 minutes. Hopson torched the Gators for 15 first-half points. At halftime, Florida assistant Rob Lanier had tabbed Wilbekin to stop the bleeding. "He told me with his eyes that this is the challenge," Wilbekin said. "You have to step up to the challenge." Wilbekin barely let Hopson breathe, and Hopson scored seven in the second half.

The defense of Florida's youngest set up the heroics for Florida's smallest. Walker zipped into a clearing thanks to a pair of screens and won the game with a lefty blooper. Walker, who hit a 25-footer to force double overtime in that win at Georgia, reminds Donovan of a certain scrappy former Providence point guard. "He can't win the dunk contest. He can't do all these spectacular things," Donovan said. "The only way he can earn respect is through winning. ... I was that way as a player."

Walker also got to the line for 10 free throws, a fact Pearl mentioned on several occasions. Walker actually took the same number of free throws as Tennessee's entire team. Pearl was careful not to pin too much on the officials, though. Remember, it was his team that freelanced on the final possession instead of running the play its coach had called -- a play that had worked several times already, according to Pearl.

Maybe Tennessee will escape this funk. After all, this is a team that boasts wins against Villanova and at Pittsburgh. Granted, the win at Pitt came at the Consol Energy Center in a game not involving Sidney Crosby, but the Panthers had won 57 consecutive nonconference games in the city of Pittsburgh.

Maybe Florida will come back to earth. The Gators still must play at Vanderbilt and at Kentucky. They face surging Alabama in Gainesville. Maybe someone in the SEC can catch Florida.

Or maybe Saturday provided a window into two teams' seasons. Maybe Tennessee is an athletic group that doesn't have the chemistry to succeed down the stretch. Maybe Florida, after three relatively fruitless years of trying to find something close to the chemistry that helped a special group to two national titles, has found a mix that could lead to bigger things.

"We're scratching a different surface," Donovan said.

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