GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Many times, people will say or write that one game mirrored an entire season.
Florida's Erving Walker probably ended UT's SEC East title hopes Saturday night in Gainesville.
Most of the time, it’s an exaggeration.
Sometimes, like Saturday, it’s just the truth.
There’s practically no other way to put Tennessee’s 61-60 loss at SEC East-leading Florida into its proper context.
It was great. Then it was bad. Then it looked like it could be great again. Then it ended with yet another result that seems indicative of where this season is headed — to an inexplicable disappointment.
It was the past three months compressed into 40 minutes.
“We dominated them from the tip, and we just didn’t do what we were supposed to do to end the game,” Vols senior center Brian Williams said. “I don’t know how else to say it. We lost again, and we should have won again.”
But this setback was the worst of this season — and many others, according to UT coach Bruce Pearl — and not just because it was the best the Vols have played in a loss in a long time.
“This is one of the most disappointing losses of my career,” Pearl said.
A frustrated Bruce Pearl had no idea why his Vols ran the wrong play in the final seconds of Saturday's 61-60 loss at Florida.
Who can adamantly argue against that? Other than last season’s one-point, Elite Eight loss to Michigan State, how many close losses have hurt UT more than this one?
Remember the possibilities presented to the Vols.
UT still isn’t close to completely healthy, but it’s starting to get there. Everyone — including the previously suspended Pearl — took this road trip, and the Vols’ final stretch of SEC games looks as manageable as any team’s.
Salvaging this season seemed possible — perhaps likely, if you’re an optimist.
But who is still optimistic about this bunch?
“It was right there. It was right there,” said Vols junior guard Cameron Tatum, who tried taking blame for the entire loss after making multiple late miscues. “We all in the locker room said, ‘This is practically a must-win for us, for us to get one back in the SEC, and what better way to get one back than to get one against the first-place team in their backyard?’
“We looked at this as a great opportunity, and then we saw it right in our hands, and we let it slip away.”
The second-largest crowd in Stephen C. O’Connell Center history celebrated Florida’s win like it clinched the East title. And perhaps it will in the end, considering the Gators kept their two-loss cushion atop the division with five league games left — and one is against lowly LSU.
UT (15-10, 5-5 SEC) lost a win that would have squished the East standings, pulling it one loss behind Florida (20-5, 9-2). Instead, the Gators stayed two losses ahead of Vanderbilt and Georgia, and three in front of Kentucky and the Vols.
“This would have started something that we really needed,” Williams said. “To be in the position we would have been in right now, and now the position we’re in ... we went from being close to first to probably in last right now. It means a lot. Knowing that we can beat anybody on our schedule, and the way we’ve lost probably six games in the closing seconds that we should have won, because we didn’t execute what the game plan was.
UT started Saturday’s game just like it started this season. The Vols, led by a scorching-hot Scotty Hopson, hit perimeter shots. Their defense was exceptional. They won loose ball after loose ball. They gave Florida few freebies.
Earlier this season, play like that gave UT a 7-0 record that included wins over Big East powers Villanova and Pittsburgh. Saturday night, it gave the Vols a seven-point lead midway through the second half in a nasty road environment against arguably — and some would say certainly — the SEC’s best team.
“We played so hard, and we did a lot of good things in this basketball game to get this victory, and we still had a loss,” said Hopson, who scored 15 of his game-high 22 points in the first half. “Yeah, that makes it hurt a little bit more.”
UT, holding a one-point lead while standing at the free-throw line for a one-and-one with 25.5 seconds left, completely collapsed. Again.
Tatum missed the front-end free toss. Florida grabbed the rebound. Diminutive Gators point guard Erving Walker drove the lane and converted. The Vols declined to call one of their two remaining timeouts because Coach Bruce Pearl had “every confidence” that Hopson or Tatum would drive to the rim and score on injured Florida forward Chandler Parsons. UT’s players, as they’d done in several close losses this season, didn’t execute the play properly. The scrambled ended with point guard Melvin Goins taking a deep 3-pointer from the top of the key.
“When the ball was in the air, my first thought was, ‘He’s going to make it,’” Hopson said.
But he missed.
And the Vols lost another game they should have won.
And it’s fair to question whether they’ll rebound from this one.
“It’s obviously a letdown,” Hopson said. “Coach Pearl always says, ‘Road wins are sweet,’ but this one is sour.”
Contact Wes Rucker at email@example.com, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247.