Forty-eight hours after being ripped competitively by the Memphis Tigers 69-51 Wednesday night, Tennessee was ripped verbally by former Vol White during a Friday night team meeting. The team then went out Saturday morning and ripped the 13th-ranked Gators 67-56.
White, a four-year starting guard (1983-87) who ranks third on Tennessee's all-time scoring list, was so disturbed by Tennessee's lackluster performance in the loss at Memphis that he asked to address the team Friday night. He did not mince words.
"Last night Tony White really got onto us," sophomore wing Jordan McRae recalled. "He pointed some people out, told us we had to start playing harder and start playing for each other."
Junior forward Jeronne Maymon said White "really called us out individually. He said we were trying to be cool out there, and that's why we were losing some of these games. It was a wake-up call about fighting for one another."
Head coach Cuonzo Martin saw a difference in his team, noting: "I don't think there's too many times this year that we played like that from a passion standpoint, playing for each other and defending the way we did. I thought that was great."
Clearly, White's harsh words struck a nerve.
"It helped us a lot, man," sophomore point guard Trae Golden noted. "Words can't even explain how great it was. If you all (media) could've been there, you could've felt how powerful it was for us. Tony White and the chaplain Roger Woods ... they helped us so much.
"People were speechless, man. It was that powerful. It catapulted us. We knew we had to protect our home court and play more together as a team. It was time to grow up, time to get these silly, childish games out the window. We had to understand: This is a team."
The Vols (8-7 overall, 1-0 SEC) certainly got a team effort in their conference opener. Kenny Hall and McRae, benched after starting the previous 14 games, responded like champions. After producing a meager 4 points and 0 rebounds at Memphis, Hall bounced back with a team-high 13 points (on 6 of 8 shooting) and 5 rebounds in 24 relief minutes. In addition to 10 points and 3 rebounds, McRae rebutted his reputation as a defensive liability by adding 2 steals and a blocked shot in 21 solid minutes.
Renaldo Woolridge, starting in place of Hall, scored just 2 points but contributed 5 rebounds, an assist and loads of energy. Freshman Josh Richardson, who supplanted McRae in the first five, produced 7 points, 2 rebounds, an assist, a block and a steal in a solid starting debut.
The two most consistent Vols, Maymon and Golden, contributed 12 points each, with Maymon chipping in 7 rebounds and Golden adding 7 assists.
Still, the Vol who made the greatest contribution — other than Tony White, of course — may have been senior wing Cameron Tatum. He sparked an explosion near the start of the second half that turned the game Tennessee's way for good.
When Florida scored to cut a 33-29 halftime deficit to 33-31, Tatum assisted Richardson for a 3-pointer, then stole the ball and drove for a dunk that swelled the lead to 38-31. After driving the baseline for another basket, Tatum assisted Hall for a dunk that bumped the bulge to 48-38.
Moments later Tatum drained a pair of free throws, then buried a 3-pointer from the left corner that widened the gap to 58-43 and brought a thunderous roar from 17,689 fans.
During that 10-minute stretch from 19:19 to 9:12 Tatum produced all nine of his points, two assists and a steal as the Vols outscored Florida 25-12 and widened their lead from two points to 15.
"Tony White talked about senior leadership, and Cam started the second half with fire, man," Golden said. "We wouldn't have had that lead if it hadn't been for Cam. Cam is our leader, and that's something we fed off of."
Instead of growing complacent and squandering their lead, the Vols actually widened it to 16 points (65-49) inside the final two minutes. Appreciative fans gave them a standing ovation as the final 30 seconds ticked off the clock.
Although Tennessee played a dominant second half, the Vols may have won the game with the defensive intensity they displayed in the first half. After a slipshod effort at Memphis, Tennessee flustered Florida with tremendous hustle and teamwork on defense. The Gators (12-4, 0-1) shot just 35.7 percent and fell nearly 30 points shy of the 85.4 points-per-game average that ranked them No. 5 nationally in scoring. They made just 7 of 22 shots from 3-point range, well below their 11.3 norm that ranked No. 1 nationally.
Erik Murphy and Kenny Boynton paced Florida with 13 points each. Freshman sensation Bradley Beal made just 4 of 12 shots and committed 5 turnovers on his way to a 9-point outing. All-star senior point guard Erving Walker, averaging 13.7 points and 5.3 assists per game coming in, finished with 8 points and more turnovers (3) than assists (2). He was held scoreless for the game's first 28 minutes.
"Erv didn't score until towards the end of the game," McRae noted. "I think we really frustrated them by taking 'em off the 3-point line and taking charges, so they couldn't get into the lane."
In addition to playing harder on defense, Tennessee played smarter on offense. Two games after launching 39 3-pointers against Chattanooga, the Vols attempted just 10 (making 5) versus Florida. By working for shots closer to the basket, they made 51 percent from the floor.
For months Martin has been preaching the importance of pounding the ball inside, playing hard on defense and taking care of the ball. The Vols accomplished all three objectives in this game and won handily against a favored foe.
Asked if Martin said "I told you so" to the team after the game, Golden laughed.
"No," he said. "Coach wouldn't do that."
But Tony White probably would. And he'd be right.