GAINESVILLE — They each knew what was at stake. There was no mistaking the magnitude.
Entering Sunday afternoon's game between bitter rivals Florida and Tennessee, both knew how critical it was for their NCAA Tournament chances. With each sitting one game out of first in the SEC East, and on the proverbial NCAA bubble, it was a must-win.
The Vols decided early the victory would be theirs.
Tennessee shot 77 percent from 3-point range in the first half, eventually led by as many as 19 then withstood a late comeback for a big-time 79-75 victory in front of a sold-out O'Connell Center.
"It was just frustrating to see, for such a big game, for them to be able to come out and get a lead like that on our homecourt," freshman guard Erving Walker said.
The Vols (18-10, 9-5) have defeated Florida seven of the past eight meetings, five in a row. Tennessee tied South Carolina for first place while the Gators (21-8, 8-6) fell into a tie for third with Kentucky and watched their tournament hopes dwindle, having lost four of six.
From their first possession, the Vols outmuscled and outplayed the Gators. Whatever runs Florida could muster, Tennessee had an answer. About the only thing that slowed the Vols was a flight delay for their chartered plane in Atlanta that kept them in Gainesville long after the game ended.
They were, UT coach Bruce Pearl said, playing like a team that couldn't afford to lose. "Our backs were clear against the wall and I thought our kids would respond," Pearl said.
The Vols trailed for just 2:19 in the game and put together a 20-5 run to take a 29-14 lead with 9:49 remaining in the first half. Florida never led again.
"We made it close, but I would say for most of the game, they were in control," UF coach Billy Donovan said. "I just felt like we were back on our heels the first 10 minutes of the game. From the start we were trying to play catchup. I think our guys need to understand our margin of error is not very good."
Trailing by 16 with 11:31 left, Florida outscored the Vols 27-14 to pull within 73-70 with 1:31 remaining. After Walker hit a 3-pointer with 55 seconds left to pull the Gators within 75-72, Tennessee guard Josh Tabb was called for an offensive foul with 46.4 seconds remaining.
But Walker's 3-point attempt with 37 seconds left was partially blocked by 6-foot-7 guard Scotty Hopson (Walker is 5 feet 8).
On the Gators' next possession, Nick Calathes went in for a layup with 17 seconds remaining, but the shot didn't fall. "I thought I had a layup, I thought I got overplayed, but I probably should have kicked it out," said Calathes, who had 20 points.
The Vols hit 4 of 6 free throws in the final 26.6 seconds to seal it. Tennessee, which entered the game shooting just under 27 percent from 3-point range against the rest of the SEC, has shot nearly 47 percent against the Gators in their two games.
"We were expecting if they were open they would make shots, so it was our fault we gave them too many open shots and open looks," junior forward Dan Werner said. "We just didn't defend well enough. That's on our shoulders."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.