Scotty Hopson figured the ball would be in the hands of go-to post player Wayne Chism. Instead, Pearl made Chism the decoy this time and told Hopson to take the shot, telling his young player “Win this for us.”
“I’ll get it if we’re maybe down two and need a 3,” Hopson said. “We obviously needed a big shot, and coach had the confidence to put it in my hands so I stepped up and knocked it down.”
Well, first the sophomore had to shake Chandler Parsons, who didn’t fall for Chism’s decoy, and adjust the designed shot. Hopson hit a fading jumper over Parsons’ head just in front of the 3-point line with 21 seconds left to give No. 14 Tennessee a 61-60 win over Florida on Sunday.
“I thought he would be more open. He did not get much of a look, but he made a play himself,” Pearl said. “It is a big shot.”
Perhaps the biggest of his short career.
The basket gave the Vols (16-4, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) their sixth straight win over their East Division rival and fifth straight victory in Knoxville. It also kept Tennessee from dropping a third game in the row, which the Vols have only done once under Pearl.
It also ended Florida’s four- game winning streak, the Gators’ longest in league play since opening the 2007 season 11-0.
“I have been on the (winning) end of two of those shots (this season) ... and Hopson really knocked down a big-time shot,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
Alex Tyus, who led the Gators with 18 points, had a chance to grab the lead back for Florida (15-6, 4-3) but missed a jumper in the middle of a crowd under the basket with five seconds left, and Hopson came away with the defensive rebound.
“It felt good. Just kind of trickled out,” Tyus said of his shot. “You just got to realize that wasn’t the reason why we lost the game. We just need to learn how to play a full game.”
After playing poorly in the first half, Chism led the Vols with 16 points and 11 rebounds and hit two key free throws with 42 seconds left. J.P. Prince scored 12, and Hopson finished with 10.
Hopson has been at his best against the Gators. He logged 20 points as a freshman last season against them in Knoxville and came up with a big block on a potential game-tying 3 by Erving Walker with 37 seconds left in Tennessee’s win in Gainesville.
“He is going to have a lot more big shots,” Pearl said of Hopson.
Tennessee overcame a slow, sloppy first half to dominate Florida in the second half. The Vols were scrappier on defense and put a strong effort on the boards, outrebounding the Gators 27-12 after halftime.
“The game was won and lost on the boards,” Pearl said.
Florida’s backcourt duo of Walker and Kenny Boynton, who entered the game having combined for 37.2 of Florida’s 75.3 average points in SEC play, finished with a total 13 points.
Boynton shot 2-for-11 from the field, including 0-for-5 on 3-point tries, while Walker went 3-for-9.
“I thought they had some pretty decent looks. They just did not shoot the ball particularly well,” Donovan said.
Before the break, it was all Florida.
The Gators used a pressing defense reminiscent of one Tennessee has used against them in the past. They limited the Vols to 36.4 shooting and outrebounded them 20-14 before halftime while taking control of the paint on both ends.
Dan Werner hit a 3-point shot from the corner of the floor and the Gators hit two more in the paint to grab a 15-7 lead with 12:55 to go.
Florida led by 10 points in the first half thanks to 57.7 percent shooting, but the Gators cooled considerably in the second half, hitting just 36.4 percent from the field.
Pearl is now 8-1 against Florida and Donovan, who joined the Tennessee coach for a $1,000-per- couple social Saturday night to raise money for cancer screening as part of Tennessee’s Outlive initiative.
“There aren’t many coaches in the country the night before the game that would spend an hour and half away from their team helping the community raise money,” Pearl said of Donovan. “There aren’t many guys in the business like him.”
The Vols travel to LSU on Thursday. Game time is 9 p.m.