KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Consider Rick Barnes’ message sent ... and received.
His star, Grant Williams, played like a star Wednesday night, particularly down the stretch in scoring 11 of Tennessee’s last 18 points, and the No. 19-ranked Vols needed every one of them to hold off Florida 62-57 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
It was just last Saturday -- after Williams’ 1-for-8 performance from the field in an 11-point loss at Georgia, amid rumblings that Williams might be suffering from back problems -- that Barnes called out his sophomore forward.
In short, Barnes said he wanted to see more performance and less talking about it from Williams, who’s been the heartbeat of a Tennessee team that padded its second-place cushion in the deepest SEC in memory to two games. Yes, the same Tennessee team that was picked to finish 13th in the preseason, and it was the same aggressive and instinctive Williams carving up the Gators inside that Barnes grew accustomed to seeing in the first two months of the season.
“He did finally start playing faster and quicker,” Barnes said of Williams, who finished with 23 points on 8-of-13 shooting and grabbed six rebounds. “He got back to doing what he did earlier in the year.”
Following the Georgia loss and Williams’ season-low five points, Barnes made it clear he didn’t want to hear any excuses.
“There’s nothing wrong with him ... other than it’s that time of year and we’re going to see if he’s the player he wants to be,” Barnes said last Saturday. “This is the time of the year that key guys step up and they play. ... He has to quit talking about it and do it.”
Barnes also said Williams had to “go back to himself” and play with the same underdog mentality that he came to Tennessee with when he wasn’t a heavily recruited prospect.
Williams, who shook off two first-half fouls, agreed that he had gotten away from his identity a little bit.
“I wasn’t waiting for the double-teams and being passive. I just thought about getting to the rim,” said the 240-pound Williams, who plays a lot bigger than his 6-foot-7 frame. “I was going to get the ball where I wanted to get it and put it in the basket.”
After Florida pulled to within 44-41 with 7 minutes, 19 seconds to play, the Vols went to Williams repeatedly, and the Gators had no answers.
“He is so strong and so disciplined with his ability to post with ultimate physicality the entire game he’s on the floor. I thought he wore us down,” Florida coach Mike White said. “Late in the game, we started to double him, and Coach Barnes started isolating him at the free throw line, but he did work from there and punished us from that spot as well.
“He’s not just a post player, but is incredibly skilled and incredibly improved. ... He took the game over.”
Not only that, but Williams made sure to talk to the media after the game, which didn’t end until after 11 p.m., and he guaranteed he would make it to his 8 a.m. class the next morning.
By contrast, there are no guarantees in what’s been a wild ride in the SEC this season.
Tennessee (20-7, 10-5) hit the 20-win mark in the regular season for the first time since Cuonzo Martin’s final season in 2013-14. That team advanced to the Sweet 16. The Gators (17-11, 8-7) are one of six teams tied for third place, but they have lost three in a row and five of their last seven.
“I think this league is worthy of nine teams [in the NCAA tournament] because anybody can win the SEC tournament, and I don’t think it would take a miracle for that to happen,” Barnes said.
White added: “The national narrative lately, and I heard somebody talking about it, is that there aren’t any really good teams in this league, but a bunch of pretty good teams. I would argue there are a bunch of really good teams and a number of teams in this league that will get into the NCAA tournament and have a chance to do damage, and also a few that won’t get into the tournament that would have a chance to do well.”