By Jimmy Hyams
Less than a minute remained in the game.
Tennessee had struggled from the outset against a pesky Florida squad that was trying to spring an upset over the No. 3 team in the country.
The Vols were nursing a two-point lead. In the huddle during a timeout, Grant Williams stepped forward.
“Let me have the ball and I’ll make the right play,’’ Williams said.
So the Vols fed Williams the ball just beyond the foul line. He drove left, kicked the ball out to the right corner where Admiral Schofield delivered a dagger of a 3-pointer with 41.3 seconds left to seal the deal.
Tennessee turned that 5-point lead into an impressive 78-67 victory Saturday in a hostile environment against a desperate team.
Williams made a “terrific pass’’ to Schofield, said Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, whose team hosts Arkansas tonight at 7.
What Barnes didn’t say – but implied – is that he trusts his veteran team. He trusts his experienced players to make the right play at the right time. He trusts them because they have earned that trust.
Barnes has taken his team to battle against the best of the best over the past few years – North Carolina, Kansas, Gonzaga, Kentucky, Purdue, Villanova. That has toughened his team and put the Vols in position to achieve goals the program has yet to reach – like consecutive SEC championships and a Final Four appearance.
Florida coach Mike White, once offered the UT job, said he thinks Tennessee is a Final Four caliber team.
The strength of this Tennessee team is it has no weakness. It can pass, shoot, score inside, score outside, play defense, rebound, make free throws, hit clutch shots and protect the ball.
Since the SEC did away with divisional play five years ago, the average record of the SEC regular-season champion has been 15-3.
I said before SEC play started that UT should take 15-3 and be elated.
I still think 15-3 wins the SEC, but UT has the potential to better that mark – if it stays healthy.
When Lamonte Turner returned three games ago from offseason shoulder surgery that sidelined him for eight of the first 11 contests, he brought a spark on offense and defense. Last year’s SEC co-Sixth Man of the Year hit 39.5 percent from 3-point range last year and he can defend.
“Lamonte, if he wanted to, could be one of the best defensive guards in the country when he’s locked it,’’ Barnes said.
The only issue is that Turner gets anxious and tries to steal the ball, Barnes said.
Barnes said he isn’t sure UT would have won its first three SEC games without Turner.
I’m not sure Tennessee would have won it first three SEC games without Jordan Bowden.
Bowden didn’t score a field goal in the two games preceding SEC play, but in three conference games, he’s scored 20, 20 and 17 points. He scored 12 in a row in the second half to keep the Vols within striking distance of Florida.
Barnes said Bowden, a Knoxville native, has “probably’’ had his best three-game stretch in a UT uniform.
Bowden is a great example of why UT is ranked No. 3 in the country. He was a three-star prospect overlooked by many who developed under Barnes and his staff. Same for Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams. Same for Kyle Alexander. And Jordan Bone. And Turner.
Barnes continually tells his team it needs to improve. The players have received the message.
“It’s when guys get to where they think they’ve got all the answers is when bad things happen,’’ Barnes said. “We don’t have a team that thinks that way.’’
They’re thinking one game at a time – and that could take them into unchartered territory.
GATOR CHOMP: Barnes wasn’t thrilled that several of his players did the Gator Chomp at Florida fans in the stands after the road win – mostly toward the student section.
But he didn’t seem all that upset, either.
“I don’t like it because I want total focus on the main thing,’’ Barnes said.
Barnes said he wasn’t on the floor for pregame warmups an hour before tipoff, so he doesn’t know what Florida fans were yelling at his players.
Schofield said Florida fans were shouting “disrespectful, inhumane’’ remarks.
“We tell our guys to control their emotions throughout the game,’’ Barnes said. “Sometimes when the game is over, they let it out. It happens.
“Do I like that? When I was a kid, I probably would have. But I’m not a kid anymore. As a coach, I’m older now and I just want to play the game. I want our guys to learn from it.
“I understand emotion. I understand competition. They hear a lot. It’s part of what makes college basketball what it is. Emotions can run high at times.’’