Seniors secure win over Florida

The Lady Vols ended the regular season with a 75-59 win over Florida on Senior Day on Sunday. Go inside for the game story, Inside Tennessee's Take and post-game press conferences.

The pre-game ceremony took about 15 minutes as the Lady Vols said good-bye to three managers, two student trainers and five basketball players, and the crowd of 18,563 seemed to savor every second of it.

Pat Summitt, as always, handed flowers to all of them and posed for individual and group photos. When it was time for the starting lineups, Summitt, as always, presented the five Florida seniors with flowers, too.

Gator guard Jordan Jones, who is from Suwanee, Ga., gave Summitt a big hug while taking her flowers and spoke to the head coach before returning to the bench.

"Every kid grows up, especially in the South, watching Pat Summitt," Jones said. "She is the reason why I am playing basketball. She really got this game started for us and I can't say enough about the amount of respect that I have for her.

"I told her that since they announced the news I have been praying for her and the team every night and that she is an inspiration to everyone. That is exactly what I said, and I mean every word of it."

It was that kind of pre-game ceremony Sunday and then a basketball contest had to be played.

Jones got Florida (18-11, 8-8) on the scoreboard first with a deep three ball, and then Tennessee (21-8, 12-4) went on a 15-0 run to open the game.

"We knew that they were going to come out intense, fiery," Jones said. "That's on us that we didn't respond, answer the way we have all season long.

"Honestly, we start slow a lot and normally we're able to bounce but against a great team like Tennessee and on their home court, it is not possible to do."

Tennessee has had its issues with slow starts this season, but the five seniors, who all started, changed the script for their final game at Thompson-Boling Arena.

"All five of our seniors came ready to play and got off to a good start," Summitt said. "That was really important for this team."

Alicia Manning set the tone on both ends. She nailed a three, got on the boards, shared the ball and disrupted Florida on defense.

"She was relaxed and she played her game," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "She wasn't forcing things, she wasn't trying to make things happen – the game came to her.

"And when she lets that come to her, she's a heck of a player."

Manning logged 14 minutes in the first half and combined with Glory Johnson to score 15 of the Lady Vols first 17 points.

When the first substitute entered – Cierra Burdick nine minutes into the first half – Tennessee had built a 17-8 lead and Florida had used two timeouts.

The coaches liked the high energy to open the game from Briana Bass getting a steal and flipping the ball back in-bounds to Manning, who found Shekinna Stricklen for a layup, to Stricklen saving a loose ball at Tennessee's end and sending it between a Florida player's legs to Bass, who found Johnson.

The crowd responded to hustle plays with the same enthusiasm as made baskets.

"We have the best fans in America," Warlick said. "And regardless of what situation we're dealing with, our fans came out to support our team and our coaching staff. We have five seniors and I didn't expect anything less.

"This year, they seem to be really into the game more, and I love it. I love when they get on the officials; I love when they get into it. It's just a great thing to see our fans have a lot of respect for our seniors."

That is an accurate observation.

When games got tight this season, the fans got more engaged and louder. Perhaps they sensed that a team dealing with the news that their head coach had early onset dementia needed even more support, and the fans delivered it. On Sunday they were thunderous in their applause for each senior.

"The Lady Vol fans have always had our back whether we're winning or losing," Johnson said. "They're always staying positive with us; you've got to love it.

"That's what we came here for. That's what we expect from our fans."

Fans sat in the very back rows of the upper reaches of the arena and packed the lower bowl. With the uncertainty of Summitt's health going forward, fans also were there to see the final home game of this season and the possibility it was Summitt's last one in the arena as head coach.

"I don't think so," Johnson said. "We don't know anything about that. If she was going to do that, she would've let us know.

"She was just really happy to be there, and we were happy to have her there. Until she says when, we're going to keep on being happy."

Amid that backdrop the Lady Vols had to focus on the game. That has sometimes been difficult for them, but on Sunday, led by the seniors, they seemed to embrace the challenge.

The coaches used nine players in the first half – double digits for all five seniors – and spread the other minutes among Ariel Massengale and Meighan Simmons (nine minutes each); Cierra Burdick (eight); and Taber Spani (six).

The result was a 10-point lead, 35-25, at halftime that ended with Massengale zipping the ball down court and finding Johnson at the rim.

The seniors opened the second half, too, and Vicki Baugh found Manning, who curled the ball to Johnson for a layup 16 seconds into the half for a 37-25 lead.

Stricklen got on track from long range in the second half and hit three treys.

"A couple of her threes were really timely," Summitt said.

They were indeed because Florida stayed in striking distance until the final two minutes when Massengale hit a pair of free throws with 2:20 left to put the lead in double digits for good, 68-57.

Manning had a hand in Stricklen's first three-pointer when she got the miss and got the ball right back to Stricklen, who buried the three on the second try for a 43-30 lead.

After Manning got a highlight block on the other end, she got the ball to Stricklen in the corner for a 46-32 lead.

Simmons and Massengale also connected from the field to keep Florida at bay.

Tennessee closed its scoring with a nearly-length-of-the-court-in-bounds pass to Johnson from Manning, a Massengale drive that found Manning and a Stricklen free throw.

Then, three of the seniors, Johnson and Manning first and then Stricklen, left to standing ovations in the final minute. Massengale drove and dished to Isabelle Harrison for the final 75-59 score.

All 10 available Lady Vols logged minutes in the game. Junior guard Kamiko Williams was held out for medical reasons, but was expected to be OK this week.

Manning had an impressive stat line for her Senior Day – 11 points, eight boards, six assists, three steals and a block.

"I was just excited, Senior Night, and our fans have just been with us through everything," Manning said. "I personally felt like I owed it to them. I owed it to my family.

"They're the reason why I'm here, so I let it all out on the floor."

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Johnson's stat line was zero fouls in 37 minutes, despite a physical game in the post.

"That was the first thing I screamed when I went into the locker room was that I had zero fouls, and I was so happy," Johnson said. "Games like that are where you kind of stay composed and let the refs handle it."

"I'm shocked that Glory didn't get a foul," Warlick said. "My father used to say, ‘You didn't play hard enough unless you had at least one or two fouls,' so I'm going to get onto Glory."

Warlick was kidding. Johnson was all over the defensive end Sunday and exhausted whoever tried to guard her.

"I want her on my team. I don't want to play against Glory Johnson."

Florida was led by Lily Svete with 12 points. Jennifer George and Lanita Bartley added 11 points each, while Jones chipped in with nine and Ndidi Madu had eight on 4-5 shooting.

"I felt like once we got going, we got the ball inside a little bit better and felt better, more confident and more comfortable with what we were doing offensively," Florida Coach Amanda Butler said.

"Probably shot a few too many threes, but again you have to give credit to Tennessee's defense for making us feel like that was our best look."

Florida shot 37.9 percent (22-58) overall, 20.8 percent (5-24) from long range and 58.8 percent (10-17) from the line.

The Gators had 14 assists, 20 turnovers, nine steals and one block.

"I didn't think that we stepped up to the challenge and the problem with the challenge was that it seemed like Tennessee was issuing the challenge and we were trying to meet it, as opposed to us being the ones who were being maybe more of the aggressors and that is not how we are best," Butler said.

Tennessee had four players in double figures led by Johnson's 21 points. Stricklen tallied 15 points, Simmons added 12, and Manning had 11. Massengale added eight points.

The Lady Vols shot 47.5 percent (28-59) overall, 40.0 percent (6-15) from long range and 72.2 percent (13-18) from the line.

Tennessee had 17 assists, 19 turnovers, eight steals and three blocks.

The Lady Vols next play Friday in Nashville at Bridgestone Arena at 3:30 p.m. Eastern against the winner of Thursday's Vanderbilt-Mississippi State matchup.

"It's a new season for us," Warlick said. "You've got the SEC tournament, you've got the NCAA tournament and it's a new season."

The seniors showed the way to start Sunday.

"The coaches expect us to play like we played today, everybody on their Ps and Qs, making sure we bring energy from the bench to the senior starters, which they did an amazing job, and just staying focused, listening to the coaches and sticking to our game plan," Simmons said.

Tennessee played in Summitt's image to close the regular season. Her impact on the game extended to the Gators, who wore "We Back Pat" T-shirts during warm-ups. Jones had hers on for the post-game press conference, too.

"We're trying to show as much support as we can for the greatest coach in women's basketball history," Jones said.

INSIDE TENNESSEE'S TAKE

Their team. Their legacy.

Tennessee may have found a starting lineup in its last regular season game. The five seniors took the floor and started the game just as the coaches have sought – high energy on both ends.

"Well, right now they're our starting five unless it proves something different in practice the next couple of days," Holly Warlick said. "They got us off to a great start and they had a lot of pride in wearing the Tennessee orange.

"I'm excited for them. I'm not going to say it's dead-set, but it was a great group to start the game."

The team will get Monday off and then will return to practice Tuesday to get ready for the SEC Tournament, which begins Thursday. The Lady Vols have a first-round bye as a two seed and will play Friday.

The entire team – seniors, other players, coaches and support staff – needed Sunday's win. It helped to erase the bitterness of Thursday's loss to Arkansas, which allowed Kentucky to win the SEC outright rather than share it with Tennessee as co-champs.

"We just want to control what we can control," Warlick said. "All I wanted to do was get a win and go into the SEC Tournament on a positive note.

"We created our own fate and we've got to live with it and just make sure we're playing hard and finishing out the season strong."

Warlick was visibly relieved at the post-game press conference after Sunday's game. She entered Thursday looking beleaguered. This time, she was smiling and didn't look as if she had played for 40 minutes.

"I obviously loved it," Warlick said. "I was really, really excited for the seniors. And as much as they've taken a lot of heat from a lot of situations, I'm extremely proud of them.

"They're great people and they came out tonight and set the tone. That's the kind of thing we're looking for from them."

When Warlick was asked about Ariel Massengale setting the freshman assist record – Loree Moore had 133; Massengale now has 137 – the associate head coach (and former Lady Vol point guard) cracked up the room with her response.

Where am I on that ranking?" Warlick asked. "I'd have pulled her right on out."

Florida Coach Amanda Butler brought some levity to the room when she was asked if SEC post players would welcome the end of Glory Johnson's eligibility. Johnson frustrated every Gator who tried to guard her and finished with 21 points and 10 boards.

"Post players, coaches and guards," Butler said of the list that was glad to see Johnson graduate. "She is a great representative of our league and I think it is one of the reasons why you choose this league as a competitor because you want to either play with or against the Glory Johnsons.

"She is a fantastic representative of the SEC and certainly of the University of Tennessee, a great competitor, and she is just hard to handle. It's really hard to guard her one-on-one. She has made the most of her career here, certainly in the regular season, and I'm sure going forward.

"I think there will be some graduation gifts sent to her for sure."

Johnson also is of slender build, definitely better suited to power forward, but has played the bulk of her Lady Vol career at center because of injuries to other post players. She answered the bell for every single game in her career and has now played in 135 with 112 starts.

"I feel like I'm a smaller post player; I just have to play big," Johnson said. "As long as I keep playing big, I don't care what size I am, how much I weigh, I'm going to keep playing as big as I can play."

That is advice the entire senior class should absorb.

It is a class that has been through hell and back with no bigger blow than the sucker punch that landed last summer with the news that Pat Summitt had early onset dementia.

On the court this season, they absorbed more punches with eight losses, including four in the SEC.

But on Senior Day all five lined up for the opening tip and then did exactly what the coaches asked on both ends of the court – play together and play with high energy.

"It comes down to us just setting our minds to it really," said Alicia Manning, who unleashed her inner senior. "It just can't be four people on the floor. It can't be three people on the floor.

"It's got to be all five, and the bench has got to be ready whenever their number is called, so it's got to be a collective effort, and it's got to be a sense of urgency all the time."

It is a class that has been much maligned for what it has done – first round loss in the NCAA tourney – and for what it has not done – reached a Final Four.

The lineup could very well stay. Or the coaches could still tinker at a spot or two. But get these seniors on the floor together as much as the game situation allows.

Let the seniors write the ending.

Their team. Their legacy.

VIDEO COVERAGE

Senior ceremony from utsportstv

Senior ceremony coverage Inside Tennessee

Game highlights from utsportstv

Seniors with Mickey Dearstone from utsportstv

Holly Warlick

Glory Johnson, Alicia Manning, Meighan Simmons

Coach Amanda Butler, Jordan Jones

Inside Tennessee photo gallery from Danny Parker


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