sports (2006-04)

Oh, What a Night!

Bruce Pearl delivers thrills at Florida’s expense

Oh, What a Night!

by Tony Basilio

With Doug Dickey, the Godfather of the incestuous Florida-Tennessee relationship on hand, perhaps it’s only appropriate that the Basketball Vols served up the most memorable night on the Hill since UT’s overtime win over the Gators in the Fall of ’98.

Doug Dickey is regarded as a Florida traitor. Many Vol fans haven’t forgiven him for going back on his word and returning to his Alma Mater in Gainesville in the late 60’s. That his presence was overshadowed by that of Portland, Tenn.’s Corey Brewer (a real Florida traitor) and Lee Humphrey (a manufactured one) tells all you need to know. Still, all three played a key role in bringing us what was the most thrilling basketball game in the modern era.

A junior from Maryville, Humphrey came into the Tommy Bowl as the nation’s most accurate three-point shooter. A classy kid from a great family, Humphrey inexplicably wasn’t offered a scholarship by Buzz Peterson. For some reason, Tennessee fans chose to vilify Humphrey for much of the game. His father Tony attends UT games regularly and is a big Tennessee hoops fan. I guess it’s Humphrey’s fault that he wasn’t thought to be good enough to play for Buzz. 

Brewer, on the other hand, eschewed the Vols for Florida by never really giving Peterson a second look. A phenomenal talent, Brewer scored Florida’s first 8 points of the game. He would contribute to the Tennessee win by cooperating with a high ankle sprain suffered late in the first half. The injury negated his effectiveness the rest of the game. With a healthy Brewer, it stands to reason that Tennessee would never have been in the game.

For the first time this year, Doug Dickey was at a UT basketball game. I reported last week in Metro Pulse that Dickey lobbied for another season of Buzzball. What must have been going through his Orange and White/Blue and Orange mind when he walked into the arena and felt the electricity of 24,011 fans radiating over a hoops program that he tried to destroy? If Dickey had gotten his way, Pearl would be elsewhere.

Pearl gave Dickey and the rest of the Florida contingent on hand a clinic on how a basketball game is to be presented. The night was simply magical.

It all began with Tennessee’s grand entrance into the arena by way of the concourse. The Vols made their way toward the arena floor by strutting jubilantly through a shocked and amazed student section behind the west goal. When they finally navigated the frenzied fans, the team was greeted by a collection of students who were positioned on the floor in the shape of a power T. Vintage Pearl! Then, the coach brought his good luck charm and daughter Jacqui out to sing an emotional and stunning rendition of the National Anthem.

When the game began, Tennessee fell down 8-2 and seemed destined for a long night. At the first TV timeout, a frustrated fan threw what appeared to be a penny on the floor. The official alerted Pearl as to what had transpired. Arena PA announcer Jeff Jarnigan made a low-key announcement asking fans to refrain from throwing things. This was not sufficient for Pearl who moments later took the mike and said, “We are gathered here for a great night of basketball. This is a great Southeastern Conference Basketball game. You’re (the crowd) a big part of it. Let’s conduct ourselves with class!” The crowd roared! 

With Brewer and Humphrey, Florida had more starters from Tennessee than the Vols. In the end, the ball was in Humphrey’s hands with Tennessee holding a two-point lead. I was eight rows from the court right on the spot where he let it go with eight seconds left in the game. What a fate the Vols would suffer. And, in front of Dickey to boot. The only thing more fitting was seeing Phillip Fulmer sitting behind UT’s bench for the breathtaking moment.

Fulmer and Dickey probably believe they’ve seen it all in the UT-Florida series, but they’ve never seen the likes of Bruce Pearl. Perhaps it’s only fitting that three-and-half hours before the Florida game Pearl told a mob of UT students camped outside the Tommy Bowl waiting for first-come, first-serve entrance the following: “We are your basketball team, and I am your basketball coach, and tonight we are going to kick Florida’s a**!”

This would have never occurred under Dickey’s watch. Nor would there have been a Tennessee basketball crowd being admonished for rowdiness or a pre-game mob scene at the student entrance. And later in the evening a crowd was all—and I mean all —still there when the final seconds ticked off the clock.

Perhaps a beacon of the reversal of fortune that is Bruce Pearl’s era at UT lies in the final eight seconds of the game. If Buzz is on the bench, Humphrey, the local boy’s shot goes in 10 times out of 10. But like the living exorcism that is UT hoops these days, that Wuzz then, and this is now!

Listen up! Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM.