Instead of giving up, the Volunteers (18-10, 9-5) grabbed back- to-back wins against Mississippi State and Florida. They are now in a two-way tie atop the SEC East with South Carolina — Thursday’s opponent in Columbia.
“Obviously I’m proud of my team for bouncing back and for staying in the race. A team with lesser talent and less character could have packed it in,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said Monday.
The display of leadership Pearl has gotten from his veteran players couldn’t have come at a better time.
After the 77-58 loss to the Wildcats on Feb. 21, Pearl accused his team of quitting and failing to play with passion.
The charge must have gotten to players like junior forward Tyler Smith, who scored only six points and went 1-for-11 from the field against Kentucky. He averaged 16 points against the Bulldogs and the Gators.
“This week has been when the leadership has finally kicked in,” Pearl said. “It has to come from within if it’s going to really be something that the kids buy into.
“I believe it took the setback in Lexington to bring that leadership on. Tyler responded and the guys responded to it, and we’re playing like a team.”
Tennessee snapped Florida’s 17-game home winning streak by taking early control of the game with 66 percent shooting and seven 3-pointers in the first half. The Vols cooled down the stretch but hung on to win 79-75 with some clutch free throws by Smith.
The leadership didn’t just come from the veteran Vols, either. Freshman Scotty Hopson earned his second SEC freshman of the week honor after averaging 14 points, four rebounds and two assists in Tennessee’s two wins last week.
“Each of us contributed by stepping in and saying what needed to be said, and each of us have taken on leadership roles that all of us have to contribute to,” said Hopson, who helped secure Sunday’s win by blocking a potentially game-tying 3-pointer with 37 seconds left. “It’s really working out for us.”
Like the Gators were before facing the Vols, South Carolina is undefeated in conference play at home this season. That means Tennessee will need to keep up the inspired play.
The Gamecocks beat Kentucky 77-59 at home but fell 96-83 at Vanderbilt last week.
“Obviously their last game at home against Kentucky, they were just overwhelming athletically, blocking shots, forcing tempo,” Pearl said. “That place will be absolutely jumping on Thursday night.”
Tipoff in Columbia is set for 7 p.m. ESPN will televise the game.