It’s 8 PM Eastern on a February Wednesday night. Tim Brando is on the call for Jefferson-Pilot Sports. If this causes tons and tons of memories to rush back for you as it did for me, you’re welcome. If you look closely, he’s sporting what I’d call a semi-mullet.
This is perhaps the last time in human history Tim Brando could reasonably be considered ‘cool.’
Leading into the actual game, both teams are almost at full strength. Tennessee is missing one key bench contributor: Aaron Green, who averages 3.7 points per game and is one of the most important figures for late-1990s Tennessee basketball. We’ll get to him later on in this series, but for now, keep him bookmarked in your head.
Tipoff happens, and it’s like Tennessee knows they want to step on Florida’s throat as soon as the clock starts. Tennessee immediately goes on an 8-0 run by way of three Florida turnovers, some quality makes, and a rapid figuring out that Florida can’t seem to do much against Tennessee’s big men inside. Green flashes a zone press early to see if Florida can break out of it; at first, they can’t. This also sets the tone for the rest of the game, because the Gators rapidly accumulate four turnovers in five minutes of basketball.
But because this is a Billy Donovan basketball team, you know a response will eventually come. Florida slowly works it back to a two-point Tennessee lead by way of Tennessee’s own struggles with the press. In this first half, Tennessee will turn the ball over nine times, almost all of them forced by Florida’s on-ball aggression that would become a key part of the early Donovan seasons.
Along the way, Tony Harris picks up his second foul. This is a big deal, of course; the average college basketball coach was only 20% likely to keep a player with two fouls in the game in the first half in the first year of available data (2009-10), meaning it’s probably even worse at this point in time. But: Jerry Green is a little more progressive than you may expect. Green not only leaves Harris in, he trusts his guard the rest of the half to not pick up that third foul. He doesn’t. When Tennessee runs its ball screens through Harris:
The results are quite pretty.
The rest of this first half develops a rhythm: Tennessee will extend their lead to 10-12, briefly lose focus, allow Florida to cut the margin to 5-8, and then do it all over again. Florida gets it to 25-17, Tennessee, with seven minutes left, and it feels like it could be the beginning of their run. After all, the Gators won’t shoot as poorly as they have forever.
Just kidding. Tennessee follows this stretch with a 13-0 run that creates a firm distance in the scoreline. From this point forward, the scoring margin will never touch single digits again. Tennessee now leads 38-17, and the run is only broken by an absurd Mike Miller three that requires several replays to understand what happened.
After another couple of Florida baskets, the halftime margin is Tennessee 39, #23 Florida 24. It’s as impressive a half of basketball as Tennessee could have asked for, one that will show people there’s still life left in this strange season they’ve created for themselves. Tennessee’s been the tougher team (+9 rebound margin), the one less willing to make horrid mistakes (9 TOs to Florida’s 11), and the team more willing to take the ball inside and drive the game to be its 1999-iest self (20 points in the paint to Florida’s 6).
And yet: if you’re watching this game in 2021, you kind of figure Florida just cuts this to single digits at some point in the first few minutes of the second half. This Tennessee team was anything but consistent; could they maintain their focus with a 15-point lead? Moreover, Florida’s shooting seems bound to regress in a positive manner. Florida’s first half eFG% was just 36% (4-for-12 on threes, 3-for-13 on twos). That would be fine if it were a different SEC team. The issue is that Florida would finish this 1998-99 season ranked 5th in the nation in eFG% at 55.5% with a 54.5% hit rate on twos and 37.9% on threes. No offense in the SEC was better at shooting their way back into a game.
After a first half in which Tennessee largely diced up Donovan’s 2-3 zone, Florida goes to a basic man-to-man defense, as does Tennessee. It’s one of the last normal things that happens in this game.
Right out of the gate, Tennessee continues to be the dominant team in the paint. I’d like to reiterate how strange this is, because:
- Tennessee was far less efficient on two-pointers that season (47.3% vs. 54.5%);
- While Tennessee was the blocked-shot leader in the SEC, Florida was pretty close at #3.
It doesn’t matter. Udonis Haslem, who finishes this game with five points, picks up his fourth foul with 17 minutes left. No one on Florida is able to stop Isiah Victor inside. No matter what rotation Donovan tries, Victor continues to get any and every shot he wants down low.
With 16:37 to play, a Florida three brings the score to 45-33. The game continues in this 12-16 point margin for nearly six minutes of game time. Florida works their tails off to find open shots, with Kenyan Weaks – a junior guard who just kept hitting about two threes a game for his entire career – nailing one of his four deep balls to make it 53-39.
Almost immediately on the other end, Brandon Wharton drops in three of his game-high 20 points to push the lead back to 17.
A minute later, Weaks hits another one to bring it to 57-44. Florida seems like they’re right on the edge of making this an Actual Game, and at one point, they’ve created six more shot attempts than Tennessee has. Confusingly, Billy Donovan decides this is the time to try his 2-3 zone for the first time in the second half. Within 15 seconds, Vincent Yarbrough is free for an open look from downtown. It goes in.
60-44, Tennessee. The game never gets back within 15. Florida hangs around for a little while longer, though, and with 10:20 left, the score is 65-49. Yet it feels like there isn’t much more they can do. Yes, Tennessee hits an impressive eight-out-of-nine shots to begin the second half, but Florida hit over 50% of their shots in the first ten minutes, too. They’ve positively regressed shooting-wise. Yet Tennessee just keeps getting bucket after bucket, few more than six feet away from the rim. At one point, Florida commits a foul on five straight possessions. They can’t handle what Tennessee is bringing.
The dam finally, blissfully breaks. It begins with another foul and peaks with Isiah Victor scoring through a double-team like the defenders aren’t even there.
Tennessee goes on a 26-7 run. Donovan pulls his most important players with a few minutes left. The Gators score all of seven points in the final 10:20.
It’s like the season has seen a mini-rebirth within its own death. Tennessee never dies; they merely stumble forward with blood gushing from limbs and a crooked smile plastered on their face. Flesh wounds heal. Eventually.
NEXT PAGE: Evening star