Once again, Florida was in trouble in an SEC game.
The Gators couldn't get a call in the first half, with foul trouble decimating a front line that tussled with Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon, largely unsuccessfully. Tennessee got five offensive rebounds and a fistful of layups, scoring 35 points on Florida's stingy defense despite making one of six threes. And the Gators couldn't get anyone but Scottie Wilbekin going, and trailed by 10 points for the first time since the second game of their season — the one against potential No. 1 seed Wisconsin, at Wisconsin, without Wilbekin or Dorian Finney-Smith.
But Florida had the last offensive possession of the first half, a 13-second squib of time that could not have been more perfectly-sized for Wilbekin. He dribbled across the midcourt line, sized up Jordan McRae, and fired away from 24 feet.
It went down for Wilbekin's 11th, 12th, and 13th points of the game. It was the first bucket for Florida's firemen.
Wilbekin was the Gators' lone standout in the first half. Patric Young struggled to get untracked against the rugged Vols. Finney-Smith picked up two fouls, as did Casey Prather. Will Yeguete was whistled for three. Michael Frazier took two shots, neither one a three. Kasey Hill dished up more freshman moments than his brilliance.
But Scottie, this team's rock and leader and reliable hand, got his 13 points on tough shots — three triples, launched from distance, and a pair of difficult two-point jumpers. He threw up an impossible fallaway, and it missed, but that was his only glaring error of the first half, and it was very much tolerable.
When Wilbekin is nearly or fully error-free, Florida can survive a lot of things. And it has, this year, because Scottie Big Shot, Scottie Ice, Scottie Nice — all of these nicknames work — is always there when Florida needs him. But maybe his best nickname is one we haven't heard, one that echoes one handed to a player from a different sport in Florida's past: Scottie Wonderful.
Florida got off the ropes in this heavyweight bout early in the second half, as it so often seems to do when trailing. The Gators put together an 8-2 run before the first media timeout, then added a Hill layup to extend the run to 10-2 — and take back the lead, at 38-37 — immediately after the resumption of play.
Tennessee barked back with a 6-0 run of its own, though, and held a 43-38 advantage with 12:18 to play. This was a hot Tennessee team, and a better one than the ones Florida saw and demolished in Gainesville and saw and summitted in Knoxville. It played ferocious defense, better defense than Florida, for much of this game, and smartly dissected Florida's defense in the first half.
This was the best any team has played against Florida for a full game, for my money, since either of the games Florida lost this season. Florida State competed with the Gators for 40 minutes. Wisconsin did, too, but against a depleted Florida roster. Few other teams had enough fight for the full 40 — UConn made timely threes, Kansas made a late run, Auburn melted down.
Florida packs a lot into the full 40 minutes every night, or plays enough good ones to make the final few academic, or plays so hard in compensating for lulls that it overwhelms the other side. (Billy Donovan, after this game: "I'd like to see us play 40 minutes. We haven't done that here.") And from that 12:18 mark of the second half onward, facing as many flames as they had seen in more than four months, they played even harder than they usually do.
Florida's 2013 football season — sorry, it needed to make a cameo here — was the story of a different set of firemen being unable to quell five-alarm blazes. Will Muschamp told his defense "You're the firemen"; they tried and tried and tried, but there was nothing they could do, really, not with an offense that was ash by October.
The DNA of Florida's national championship football teams, all three of them, had more to do with defense than we like to remember. The 1996 Gators had one of Steve Spurrier's best defenses, and entered its national championship rematch with Florida State having given up 201 points, just like the 1995 Gators had given up 201 entering the 1996 Fiesta Bowl, and gave up just 44 points over two games to Florida State, which had scored at least 44 points in each of its four games immediately prior to the two teams' first meeting. 2006 Florida all but rode its defense to a national title; those Gators gave up more than 20 points just twice. And 2008 Florida, blessed with the nation's best offense, matched that with a defense that gave up more than 21 points just once.
Great offenses are nice, and Florida fans have been weaned on them in both football and men's basketball over the last two decades; I, too, joined Gator Nation within the last two decades, so I know this well. Having a scorch-the-earth offense will be our preferred default condition for as long as we're watching the Gators.
But offense is, I think, easier to brew up at a moment's notice. And high-flying offenses can crash suddenly. Great defense requires more discipline, more effort, more dedication. Great defense is hard, but it is even harder to break the habits that lead to it, once they are second nature.
And it is defense, whether Muschamp's resolute but doomed defenses or Billy Donovan's suddenly relentless outfits, that Florida is trending toward.
Like it or not, Florida is a firefighters' academy now.
And that fire Tennessee was stoking? Florida put it out.
The Gators jabbed at the Vols with a Young dunk — on a gorgeous assist from Dorian Finney-Smith — a couple possessions after that 12:18 mark, but could not get a point on their next possession, ginned up by a Wilbekin steal, with Finney-Smith missing two free throws at the line.
Tennessee wouldn't score on its next possession, though, allowing Young to jab again with another layup, and Florida snatched another possession from the Vols with a bit of larceny from Frazier, who poked a ball away from behind, and Young, who rushed to the corner to make a save. It used that possession to free Frazier for his only three of the day — one that gave Florida the lead again.
Florida wouldn't score on its next four possessions. Neither would Tennessee. The Vols' fifth possession brought two Jarnell Stokes free throws, ones that tied the game at 45-45 — ones that gave Tennessee its first points in more than seven minutes.
And with Florida frustrating Tennessee's offense at every turn, Maymon melted down. After a questionable call — one of seemingly dozens that went against both teams on the day — Maymon growled in the direction of Pat Adams, the whistleblower responsible for most of the questionable calls on the day, and earned a technical foul. Florida, just 1-for-5 at the free throw line to that point, made all four of the free throws it got.
Finney-Smith would foul out on the next possession — another iffy call — and Stokes would make one of the two free throws he was awarded, but Florida was in great position. All the Gators had to do was keep grinding, in theory.
McRae had one last bomb to throw, and he chucked it with 2:49 to go, rising up over a good Wilbekin contest to drain a three, Tennessee's only field goal of the final 12:17 of play. It was a tough shot, and a very good one.
Florida had been battling a blaze all day, and that shot would have made past Florida teams wilt. Last year's Gators couldn't quite respond to big threes like that one in all six of their single-digit losses; two years ago, threes like that would prompt Annie Oakley impressions from Florida's three-guard rotations.
This team worked the ball low to Patric Young, who scored on another hook, giving him 15 points. (He would finish with 16 points and eight rebounds, leading Florida in both categories.) And it got a steal on Tennessee's next possession, then forced a turnover on the next one that led to a run-out for Prather and two more free throws. It didn't flinch when Wilbekin threw a space-clearing elbow and caught Antonio Barton, glued to him, with a bicep, for a turnover of its own; it just forced a hideous missed three by Armani Moore. And it patiently worked the clock against a Vols defense that was puzzlingly hesitant to foul late, shortening a game that Tennessee desperately needed to lengthen, and finished on a 7-0 run.
It won this game, 56-49, becoming the first SEC team to ever win its first 20 games against SEC competition, and just the second SEC team ever to win 20 games against SEC teams. It doused the scorching-hot Vols on a day when the Vols were more than game enough to take down many, many top-10 teams.
After the game, Wilbekin praised Florida's ability to persevere through adversity, but began his comments to ESPN's Shannon Spake by affirming Florida's trust in Donovan's process and its own, one that has gotten this team to higher heights through 33 games than any other team in Florida history.
And after a weird game, with fouls aplenty and few threes and enough twists for two Disney parks' worth of roller-coasters, it really does feel like all went according to plan.
Florida's firemen came and put out an inferno, just like they have all year. Maybe that's just what happens when the blazes aren't too big, and the firemen know exactly what they're doing.