"We expected it to be a close game, but are very pleased that we were able to separate ourselves," Coach Pat Summitt said. "Shooting the ball well is one thing, but I liked our defensive intensity as well."
The Lady Vols had effectively ended the game at halftime when they took a 47-15 lead into the locker room. That was the direct result of a whopping 30-16 margin on the boards in the game's first 20 minutes and a 57-37 gap for the game.
Shekinna Stricklen led Tennessee with 12 boards followed by Alicia Manning and Glory Johnson both with nine rebounds and Kelley Cain with eight. The three starting guards, Angie Bjorklund, Meighan Simmons and Taber Spani, had four each.
"We put a lot of emphasis on rebounding," Summitt said. "Stricklen was at the top of her game and Kelley did a great job. … I like the fact that Angie's rebounding and Meighan's rebounding. If you can dictate what happens on the glass then you have a chance of really going to the other end and making good things occur."
Summitt had expected a much stiffer test from the Gators, who were 8-0 at home this season, and had barely lost a year ago to Tennessee when Bjorklund hit a reverse layup with 2.3 seconds on the clock.
"We are very disappointed, obviously, of the outcome, but (also) just the way the whole game went," Florida Coach Amanda Butler said. "Tennessee is tremendous, there isn't any question. I think they are great. They deserve their ranking; they are certainly the best team in the league. I knew we were going to have to play well to beat them, but we are just really disappointed with our toughness.
"We have to give Tennessee credit for setting the tone right from the beginning offensively. Defensively, the tempo, the rebounding battle, they just really took all of that away from us right from the tip. We never adjusted or responded with the toughness that I know that this team possesses. The younger players looked dazed."
Tennessee's younger players looked that way two years ago when they lost in Gainesville, 66-57. But those 2009 freshmen are now juniors, with three of them, Stricklen, Johnson and Manning having their fingerprints all over the box score. Combine that with the marksmanship of the senior Bjorklund and the inside presence of the redshirt junior Cain, and the Lady Vols have the ability to overwhelm opponents.
Still, the coaches will watch the film and point out breakdowns, especially mixed box-outs, poor passes – 17 turnovers will stick out for Summitt – and defensive slipups. Tennessee is capable of dominating opponents but is not yet a dominant team on a national level.
"Far from it," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "We're going to come back and critique this performance. You want to have affirmation, too. We did some awfully good things in this game, but this team cannot lose the hunger and the drive that it takes to be a national championship team.
"If they're serious about it they have to know that winning by 43 on the road, that's nice for today but guess what, tomorrow is another day. If we start doing that consistently to people, then we take it a step forward. The jury is still out."
Lockwood, who had the scout for the Florida game, and the other coaches were pleased with the offensive balance that the Lady Vols displayed to start the game.
After two missed 3-pointers to start the game – one by Simmons and the other by Bjorklund – Cain grabbed the offensive board off the second miss and hit the stick-back. That was followed by a made three-pointer from Bjorklund – an indicator of things to come – and a 5-3 lead at the 18:37 mark of the first half. The Lady Vols never trailed after that.
Cain got the next basket by running the floor for a 7-3 lead and then Bjorklund hit an wing jumper that she created by luring her defender into thinking she would loft a three for a 9-3 lead with 17:08 left before halftime. Stricklen ran the floor on the next possession, got the ball from Bjorklund, was fouled and hit two free throws. When Bjorklund drained a three after the Gators left her open in the zone the score was 14-5 at the 16:02 mark, and Butler wanted a timeout.
It didn't stop Tennessee's run as Cain got two blocks on one Gator possession – once on Azania Stewart and then again on Deana Allen off the shot from the in-bounds play – and then Stricklen penetrated, stopped just inside the line and fired the ball to Bjorklund in the corner for a three-pointer and 17-5 lead at the 14:51 mark.
On Tennessee's next possession, Simmons was left uncovered, and she swished the three for a 20-7 lead at the 14:22 mark. Johnson entered the game at the 13:50 mark and got on the scoreboard at the 12:31 mark with a stick-back of a teammate's miss and a 22-9 lead.
Summitt went eight deep in the first half – Kamiko Williams and Alicia Manning also entered the game – and the points kept coming as Manning found Stricklen underneath 13 seconds after she took the court for a 24-11 lead at the 10:31 mark.
Manning finished the game with eight points on 4-5 shooting, nine rebounds and two assists.
"She has given us a huge lift," Lockwood said. "That is what we are looking for from her. That's what we need from her. This team is better when she's doing that for us."
Summitt said on her post-game radio show, "She gets it. She knows how to play to her strengths, and she does a good job of that. She is great on the defensive end and just a really good teammate, as well."
The Lady Vols switched into a zone on the next possession, and the Gators got a shot clock violation as they struggled to find any seams. Cain, who played 14 minutes in the first half and moved well, anchored the middle.
"That's what is great about our defense," Bjorklund said to Mickey Dearstone on the post-game radio show. "We go man, zone, whatever we need to do. It was good to have that option.
"Having Kelley right in the middle with her hands up … a key with our defense today was just talking, communicating. We called out every screen. Everyone was on the same page, rotating. We did what we were supposed to do on defense."
Tennessee ended the first half on a 25-4 run over the last 11 minutes with offense from seven players, capped by a three-pointer from Simmons right before the buzzer sounded as she faked right, stepped left and nailed the shot before her defender recovered.
Over those same 11 minutes, the Gators got one field goal from Brittany Shine, a three-pointer, and a free throw from Allen.
By halftime, Bjorklund had outscored Florida with 16 points, and the Lady Vols led 47-15. Before Butler left the court, CSS asked her how to address the offensive woes, and she pointed out her team's inability to stop Tennessee in transition was much more of a concern.
"We need to be physical," a clearly peeved Butler said. "We haven't tried that."
That is the type of game Tennessee had expected, and instead it was the Lady Vols who set the tone from the opening tip.
"It was pretty tough," Stewart said. "They are a very good team. They came out to play, they were ready, and I think we had the game plan down. Our coaches did a great job with our scout and stuff, and I just feel that I, in particular, needed to come out punching first and we didn't make that first punch. Angie, we knew what she was going to do, she shot the lights out and we didn't adjust to that at all."
Bjorklund didn't score in the second half, but Johnson, Simmons and Stricklen boosted their output into double digits.
The second half started like the first – two misses – but then Bjorklund found Simmons in transition for a layup and a 49-18 lead with 17:56 to play. A jumper by Stricklen in transition and then a steal by Bjorklund led to a trey by Simmons and a 54-18 lead with 16:35 left, forcing Butler to call timeout.
Cain got a steal on the next defensive possession, and the ball moved from Bjorklund to Stricklen to Simmons for a 57-18 lead with 15:58 left.
Williams entered the game after two consecutive turnovers by Simmons and promptly found Cain inside for a 59-23 lead with 13:41 left.
"Obviously we want to go inside first," Summitt said on her post-game show. "That establishes how we want to play this game. Inside-out was good and ball movement was very good."
At the 11:45 mark, Cain's work was done for the night after 22 total minutes, and Johnson and Manning handled the paint. Tennessee also kept its transition game in gear as Taber Spani found Williams on a long pass for a 61-23 lead with 10:51 left.
Johnson made two free throws for a 63-26 lead with 9:10 remaining, but it was the play that sent her to the line that was noteworthy as she stuffed a shot with a two-handed block and then was fouled as she grabbed the ball.
Spani also showed her expanded offensive game as she shot faked, stepped left and then went up and under to her right for a 67-28 lead with 7:51 left. Johnson stepped out of the paint to hit a baseline jumper for a 74-32 lead with 4:55 left.
Summitt used 11 players in the second half, getting minutes for Lauren Avant, Briana Bass and Sydney Smallbone. Avant had the drive of the game as she went left, leaned in and made the left-handed flip shot plus the foul for a 77-36 lead with 3:32 left.
Avant, who has battled injuries in the first half of the season, showed in her seven minutes why Tennessee recruited her as a point guard when she drove on the next possession and then dished to Manning for the 79-36 lead with 2:24 left.
The final points for Tennessee came when Williams went unimpeded to the rim and Smallbone, fouled on the sideline, hit both free throws for the 83-40 score.
Avant dribbled out the final 20 seconds, and the handshake line between the Lady Vols and Gators was well under way when the clock hit zero.
"We have a lot of depth and that is one thing that is important, we can go deep," Summitt said.
Tennessee's bench outscored Florida's, 32-20. Bjorklund logged 33 minutes, but 10 other Lady Vols were at 29 minutes or much less.
"That is crucial," Lockwood said. "The bench gave us a lift. Glory has played like a starter and then A-Town is now doing what she is doing. Kamiko is coming in and giving us a lift now.
"That's huge for us. When we can get a solid eight, nine in a rotation and even 10, man, that helps this team tremendously."
Lockwood also was pleased that Tennessee got balanced scoring – 30 points in the paint and nine made 3-pointers for 27 points – because the inside-out attack is the Lady Vols' strength on offense.
"We want that balance," Lockwood said. "We were hitting the three early but then also getting our bigs involved is very crucial. It all looks better and feels better when that ball is going in. The defense gets a little bit tougher. You're just better. You play better. We did like our balance. We achieved our balance."
Cain logged an effective 22 minutes and was 3-3 from the floor for six points with eight rebounds, four blocks and a steal. Her presence on the floor can't be understated in terms of how it changes the tone that Tennessee can set on both ends.
"That kid is a difference maker when she is feeling good and she is mobile and she is able to run and seal and post, it's a world of difference for us," Lockwood said. "When she is able to be healthy and move and seal and react, the kid gives us something that we just can't get from anywhere else."
Bjorklund being able to scorch the nets also sets the tone for Tennessee.
"I have made it very clear to her that she has the hot shot and she is one of the best shooters I have coached in the game," Summitt said. "As I look at her, she is truly a difference-maker and if we are going to have a chance to win a championship then she has to understand her role. I think she has embraced it and the maturity of our team has given us a lot of confidence."
Bjorklund was 4-9 from behind the arc and 6-13 overall to lead all scorers with 16 points. She also had four boards, two steals, a block and an assist.
"I think the coaches have really been talking to me about not hesitating because I had been," Bjorklund said. "I continued to focus on catch and shoot. I think our team has done a great job of coming right from the start with a lot of intensity. I think our defense getting stops has really helped our offense and I am just proud of our team. We have been playing together a lot better."
Bjorklund was asked by Dearstone on the post-game radio show if the team was beginning to get it.
"We are," Bjorklund said. "We just have to keep it going, every single possession every game."
Dearstone followed that up by asking what took so long.
"I think some people had to realize that it takes a lot more investment than they think," Bjorklund answered. "You have to get in the gym, get in extra shots. You have to watch game film, whatever it takes. The more you see people put it in that energy and investment, then the better the results."
Bjorklund, who earned a championship ring in 2008, arrived with that mentality on a senior-laden team so she knew early in her career how much effort goes into winning a national title. The classes that followed her didn't have that work ethic as a whole.
"As a senior I have to drag them into the gym," Bjorklund said. "And now it's gotten to a point where they're calling me and saying, ‘Hey, let's get shots up.' It's great. It's different, but it's good."
Lockwood wants to see that trend continue into the spring semester.
"There is no doubt," Lockwood said. "That is where we need to be. That's how you get better. There is no secret. You're going to shoot the ball better when you're invested and you spend time. We are very happy that our team seems to be doing more of that now. Obviously, it's got to continue. We can't lose that."
That preparation was apparent Thursday in Gainesville, and the start to the SEC season also reflects how demanding Summitt and her coaches have been since the loss to Baylor in mid-December.
"I am proud of our team for coming in and being ready to play," Bjorklund said. "I think it's our preparation. We have been working very hard in practices. We just know that we're going to get every single team's best game so just come in ready to play and ready to match and exceed every team's intensity."
The point of view from Florida's sideline was one of disappointment.
"I didn't feel like anyone on our team really, we didn't look like the same team we did (Wednesday) in practice," Butler said. "We tried to prepare them for what it was going to feel like. I think they are a tremendous offensive team this year and we didn't take easy points or second shots away from their transition offense, which was really, really disappointing.
"I don't think anyone necessarily had that look in their eye like it was going to be a special night."
Allen, a junior guard who was 3-19 from the field for six points but led her team with eight boards, said, "Coming into the game, I knew it would be intense. I was up for the game and that was the whole part of the recruiting process, like, I was so up for coming to the next-best SEC school to help beat Tennessee.
"I just felt like we got away from certain things on offense and defense. We took off possessions, and like Coach said, our offense sparks from our defense. Once we couldn't stop them from doing what we knew they would do, we kind of lost confidence. I felt like we weren't all on the same page and we weren't as confident in our game, so it slipped away from us."
After playing mostly man in the first three SEC games, Tennessee went to its matchup zone for long stretches against Florida.
"Our length I think really bothered them," Summitt said. "Really a great effort, very pleased. Just thought we came out very, very focused. Our defense and our board play, we talk about that all the time, but I think they've really bought into it."
Florida didn't have a scorer in double digits. Brittany Shine led the Gators with seven points off the bench. Jaterra Bonds and Allen added six points while Lanita Bartley chipped in with five, all from the free throw line.
Florida shot 21.4 percent (15-70) overall, 23.5 percent (4-17) from behind the arc and 75.0 percent (6-8) from the line. The Gators had five assists, 14 turnovers and 11 steals.
Tennessee was led by Bjorklund with 16 points. Johnson had 12 points, while Simmons had 14 and Stricklen added 11. Ten of the 11 Lady Vols who logged minutes got in the scoring column.
Tennessee shot 47.8 percent (32-67) overall, 42.9 percent (9-21) from the arc and 66.7 percent (10-15) from the line. The Lady Vols had 13 assists, 17 turnovers, nine blocks and six steals.
The Lady Vols dominated the boards, 57-37, led by Stricklen's 12 rebounds.
"Every day in practice we do at least four or five rebounding drills," Stricklen said. "We still have to improve, especially on boxing out. We just have to keep working on it."
Tennessee had won two of its first three SEC games by large margins – 65 and 40 points – but a 43-point gap against Florida was a surprise.
"Absolutely," Summitt said. "I thought this could be a real tough challenge for us and fortunately we just came out and never really looked back. The maturity of our team is so much better this year than it was last year."
She added, "We just have to take this and know that you never arrive from this game and just have to wait for the next one and it will be a challenge for us. It always is."
The next game will be a rare Saturday one in the regular season against Vanderbilt at Thompson-Boling Arena. The Vols play Vandy at noon, and the Lady Vols play at 8 p.m.
"It's really neat," Summitt said. "I know our team is excited. I know the guys are excited. It's really special that we can share those two games in this building and hopefully get wins."
The team took a charter flight back to Knoxville after Thursday's game, and the players will practice Friday afternoon after classes to prepare for Saturday's evening contest.
"Let's hope they don't sleep all day," Summitt joked in Thursday's post-game TV interview. "We've got to get them awake and ready to play."
It will be a short turnaround for the team with one day between games and the time needed to get back home.
"I think that this team has the maturity now that they can deal with the turnaround," Summitt said before the team left for Gainesville. "It's always a wait and see, but the one thing now, we can play only eight players, so if you're not real excited about playing defense or rebounding or doing the dirty work then you can just go down to the end of the bench and be cheerleaders.
"I don't think this team wants that now. They are really battling for quality minutes of playing time. I have to give my staff a lot of credit, too. We have really held people accountable. And you can hold people accountable, but are they really going to respond? They certainly have and big difference from this year to last year."
Saturday's double-header will be part of ESPN GameDay, which will broadcast live before both games. Pre-sales for tickets for the Lady Vols game are 16,322, and the doors open at 6:30 p.m.
"I want us to pack the place," Summitt said.