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February 26, 2013So here it was, barely four minutes left in the game --- and if everyone is perfectly honest, Tennessee's NCAA hopes and meaningful March basketball rested on those ticks as well --- when Jarnell Stokes used Hulk hands to snare another of his 14 rebounds and lead a reluctant fastbreak.
The Vols led, 57-50, but none of the sold-out Thompson-Boling Arena crowd of 19,567 was finding comfort. It was still anyone's game.
And two months ago, heck maybe six weeks ago, it would not have been Tennessee's game. Whereas on this night the 6-foot-8, kindly scaled 270-pound Stokes did his best Steve Nash, these Vols formerly wouldn't have made these plays. The plays that are the difference in a 64-58 win against a Florida team that entered the affair with its reptilian eyes set on striding closer to a league crown and a No. 1 seed in next month's NCAA Madness.
Now, everyone is making contributions with timing as attuned as Rolex. Stokes running the point --- drawing a crucial foul, making an even bigger free throw. Josh Richardson inducing a late-minute charge from Mike Rosario following a Gators' steal. Trae Golden playing 34 minutes at point, committing just two turnovers and helping harass the vaunted Florida starting backcourt into 10-for-30 shooting and 26 combined points.
Or, for better perspective: one point less than Jordan McRae, who surely has sealed a first-team All-SEC selection and merits Southeastern Conference player of the year consideration.
"We've got to celebrate this win (Tuesday) night and do everything in our powere to try to beat a talented Georgia team," said Martin, who improved to a gaudy 3-0 against the mighty Gators, not to mention 13-3 in the month of February in his two seasons on Rocky Top. "That's just the way it is.
"I can't go any further with that (NCAA talk) because you don't know. You look at this team and you say 68 teams and it doesn't work [that way]. Is this one of the 68 teams? Without a doubt. But you've got do your job, that's the bottom line. And for us I said keep it out of someone else's hands."
Yet again, mission accomplished. The Vols grabbed their season on the brink six games ago, when they were smarting from consecutive losses at Arkansas and home against Georgia.
Now they haven't lost since signing day, and they own the program's longest February winning streak since the 1998-99 squad that won the SEC East.
That team, of course, never reached its full potential. This one seems hellbent on not even establishing some outsiders' notion of what that boundary might be.
"I think what happened last year with us, you have to be," Golden said of the team's more business-like approach. "Because you get to a point where, it's a big win, but the year's not over. It's not a national championship win where you can look back on anything. We just have to make sure that we take this win and move on to the next, because that's what you have to do. I think that's probably the biggest thing with us, we realize it's another game. And that's what's big for us."
This win, of course, guarantees nothing for Tennessee. Except that Saturday's game maintains the team's mantra of the next-game-as-most-important. And it is. If the Vols have room for a miss-step, they're not admitting it.
"I feel like we expected to win this game," said Stokes, whose bruising game wore down Florida's Patric Young. "I mean after the game, I didn't get that sort of upset feeling of everyone rushing the floor. I feel like coming into these games we expect to win. I'm celebrating we won, I'm happy we won.
"But that was the expectation."
And why shouldn't it be? If Stokes can run the point --- even as both McRae and Golden begged for the ball, Golden fearing Stokes would draw Martin's ire --- and McRae can outscore Florida's backcourt and Richardson can draw a charge and Florida can literally be left bloodied --- see Casey Prather's nasty incidental cut from Stokes' head --- then the unexpected now should perhaps become the norm.
Simply put, the Vols right now are on point.