Tennessee secured a much-needed road win and prevailed 84-75 over Florida in a shootout between the Lady Vols’ Diamond DeShields and the Gators’ Ronni Williams.
Tennessee (13-7, 4-3) defeated Florida (10-10, 1-6) in a gritty game that sent Jordan Reynolds to the locker room with an injured ankle and Mercedes Russell to the bench after getting hit across the face.
DeShields did the heavy-lifting on both ends for the Lady Vols with 27 points, three steals and a block.
“I think Diamond took great looks,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “I don’t recall her taking any bad shots.”
Williams, DeShields’ counterpart for Florida, tallied 31 points for the Gators and repeatedly got to the line. She fouled out with several seconds left in the fourth quarter after playing much of the second half with four fouls and being shuttled in and out almost like a hockey player to keep Williams on offense and off defense.
“We attacked the basket,” Warlick said. “And, on the other end, we put them on the line too much.”
Tennessee shot 35 free throws and made 27. Florida went to the line 17 times – with 13 attempts by Williams – and made 12.
By the time the fourth quarter ended, the Lady Vols were happy to be done without any further physical damage – in this case, to themselves.
“Jordan got hit. Mercedes got hit. Meme (Jackson) got hit,” Warlick said. “Mercedes took a pretty good shot to the eye.”
Florida’s defensive approach at times was to foul repeatedly because the officials won’t call all of them, a tried-and-true tactic, especially in the rugged SEC.
But the Lady Vols, after a shaky start at the line, converted 70.6 percent at the stripe. The rebounding disparity, however, allowed Florida to stay within striking distance. The Gators prevailed on the glass, 42-30, with 21 offensive rebounds to eight for Tennessee.
“That’s pretty ridiculous, and that’s how they stayed in the game,” Warlick said. “That’s just putting a body on someone. We weren’t doing our due diligence on the boards.”
Reynolds did her part with nine boards, but Russell was limited to five. Jaime Nared added seven boards for Tennessee, while DeShields added five.
The Lady Vols put together the same script on the road – fast start, followed by turnovers and a run by the opponent. Tennessee built a 17-point lead in the first quarter at 22-5 and then allowed an 11-0 run by Florida to end the first quarter and start the second quarter. The Gators pulled to 27-23 after five straight Tennessee turnovers.
But the Lady Vols pulled out of it in Gainesville and led at halftime, 48-34, behind 13 points by DeShields and 10 by Nared. Alexa Middleton hit two three-pointers in the second quarter and went to the floor for a steal, flipped the ball over her head and ahead to Schaquilla Nunn, who was all alone and hit an easy layup.
The Gators remained in striking distance because of 10 offensive rebounds in the first half. The Lady Vols had the lead at the break because they shot 56.7 percent from the field in the first 20 minutes to 43.2 percent marksmanship by Florida. Tennessee also had seven turnovers to 12 for Florida and 10 assists and six steals.
“We’re blooming. We’re blossoming. It’s baby steps,” DeShields said on her post-game radio interview by way of trying to explain the fast start and then shaky play. “In the past, we’ve let those runs become lead changes.”
That is what happened at Ole Miss and Auburn, but Tennessee never surrendered the lead in Gainesville.
The Lady Vols rebuilt the lead to 19 points in the third quarter and finished it ahead by 13 points, 71-58. Tennessee lost Reynolds with two minutes left in the third quarter after she was double-teamed and then injured her left ankle in the skirmish on the floor. She had to be helped to the locker room but returned midway through the fourth quarter.
Tennessee held on through the fourth quarter after the Gators cut the lead to eight points, primarily on the strength of Florida’s offensive board work, and sealed the game by taking care of the ball and hitting free throws.
“Chalk it up,” Warlick said. “We’ll take it. We did some good things down the stretch. When we needed to get stops, we did it. We got the W.”
Tennessee shot 47.2 percent (25-53) overall, 50 percent (7-14) from the arc and 77.1 percent (27-35) from the line. The Lady Vols had 12 assists, 14 turnovers, eight steals and two blocks.
Middleton’s two thefts, along with those of DeShields, stymied Florida’s momentum when trying to mount the comeback. DeShields jumped the route, to put it in football terms, for both of her steals, which she attributed to scouting report studies.
“Our coaches do a great job with scouts,” DeShields said. “We know tendencies. I want to be recognized as a defensive player, and I don’t like to get beat.”
DeShields logged 38 minutes, and the Lady Vols needed each one, especially when Reynolds had to leave the court. DeShields became the primary ball-handler to break the pressure.
Nared went the distance at 40 minutes and added 16 points. Russell finished with 14 points, and Reynolds and Middleton added 11 each.
Florida shot 44.9 percent (31-69) overall, 10 percent (1-10) from the arc and 70.6 percent (12-17) from the line. The Gators had 13 assists, 17 turnovers, six steals and five blocks.
Two Gators joined Williams in double figures. Haley Lorenzen notched 17 points with 11 boards, while Tyshara Fleming added 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Neither team will use the game film as a defensive tutorial, but Tennessee will take the outcome.
“A win is a win, especially on the road,” DeShields said.
Florida got its first SEC win on Sunday by putting up 76 points on Georgia. In an indicator of the unpredictable nature of SEC basketball, Georgia held South Carolina to 36 points through three quarters on Thursday, but the Lady Bulldogs managed just 30 points themselves in the first 30 minutes. The Gamecocks went on to win 62-44 and remain undefeated in the league at 8-0.
The Lady Vols next take the court on Monday against South Carolina in a 6 p.m. Eastern tipoff on ESPN2 in Columbia.
“It’s a game that we need,” DeShields said. “Every game in this league is a game that we need to win going forward. This will be a great game to see what we’re really made of.”