The Lady Vols got the 74-70 victory over Florida on Senior Night and got Diamond DeShields back on the court in a win-win for Tennessee.
Tennessee (18-10, 9-6) rallied from a fourth-quarter deficit to defeat Florida (13-15, 4-11) in a game that required a Pat Summitt-style effort on defense and the glass.
“As you score on one end, you’ve got to come up with stops,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “I think down the stretch, we came up with some big stops. We attacked the basket and weren’t going to settle for forced threes. We were going to get the ball inside, or we were going to attack the paint. That’s exactly what we did.”
The Lady Vols got critical stops, shook off an 0-7 start to the fourth quarter and used the free throw line to get on the scoreboard to overcome not hitting a field goal until the 2:57 mark when Alexa Middleton went end to end to bring the Lady Vols within five points, 68-63.
“I knew we hadn’t scored in a while. I didn’t know that was the first basket of the quarter,” Middleton said. “I just knew we needed a basket and I saw a gap open up, and I just attacked it and made the layup.”
Florida took a seven-point lead, 68-61, with 3:58 to play in the game and then didn’t score again until three seconds were left in the game, much to the delight of 9,968 fans who sounded much louder Thursday in the home court regular season finale at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The evening began with senior ceremonies for guard Jordan Reynolds and post Schaquilla Nunn.
“Jordan Reynolds is a kid that, when I became head coach, committed to play at the University of Tennessee, knowing that I was the head coach,” Warlick said. “It’s special for me, because both Jordan and Mercedes committed. Jordan may have not had the best game, but for the most part, she was focused. I asked her to attack the basket and she did. She got good looks around the basket; they just wouldn’t fall.
“I don’t think we win the game without Schaquilla Nunn tonight. I’m really excited for her because she wanted to come here and make a difference, and she has made a difference on this basketball team.”
Tennessee also presented flowers to Florida’s seniors, including Ronni Williams, who tallied 22 points and fouled out with 1:37 left in the game after Middleton drew an offensive foul as she tried to get around Williams to cover a three-point shooter. The SEC coaches will be happy to see Williams depart as she leads the conference in scoring at 18.6 points per game.
“Ronni Williams is just a special kid,” Warlick said. “She keeps getting better and better, so personally, I’m glad she’s a senior. I was glad to give her those flowers before the game.”
It was Middleton’s defense on Delicia Washington in the closing 15 seconds that sealed the win. Middleton stuck to Washington on the perimeter, didn’t allow any separation and forced Washington into a deep three that drew no iron. Jaime Nared and Nunn sealed the win at the free throw line.
“She came up to me and said, ‘I’ve never played that great of defense until tonight,’ ” Warlick said. “We’ve worked on it and worked on it, and she’s gotten better. She is a great offensive player, but I think she doesn’t want to be known as a liability of defense. She has some fight in her, and when she has that, she is a tough kid.”
The Lady Vols started the game down 8-0 until Nared got Tennessee on the scoreboard with a pair of free throws. By halftime, Tennessee has managed to take a 35-32 lead and led 56-54 after three quarters.
But the Gators scored the first six points of the fourth quarter, while Tennessee misfired on threes and short jumpers. DeShields twice pulled the Lady Vols to within four points, 62-58, and then 65-61 by hitting five three throws, including three in a row after being fouled on a trey attempt.
When Lorenzen Haley stuck a shot-put like three-pointer to give the Gators a 68-61 lead with just under four minutes to play, it appeared Florida would spoil Tennessee’s senior night.
But the Lady Vols ratcheted up their defense, scrambled for loose balls and crashed the glass. Middleton and DeShields both went end to end – DeShields foray was an and-one to close the deficit to two points, 68-66, with 2:29 remaining. Nunn was fouled after getting an offensive rebound and made one free throw with 69 seconds left to bring the Lady Vols within one point, 68-67.
“In all of our big games, she comes up with rebounds and gets shots off,” Warlick said. “I don’t know how she does it, but she does. She is a fighter.”
On the next play, DeShields’ perimeter defense forced a tie-up – with possession to Tennessee – and DeShields found Nunn at the rim for a 69-68 lead that the Lady Vols would not surrender.
DeShields tallied nine assists – the majority of which were perfect delivery of the ball inside to post players – and added 15 points and 10 rebounds for a near triple double.
DeShields came off the bench and took a little while to warm up, especially shooting the ball, but she had four assists by halftime. DeShields had been off the court for a week after taking a shot to the neck against Alabama early in the first quarter during a loose ball scramble. She was removed from the court on a stretcher with her neck immobilized as a precaution and then had to follow specific cognitive and physical protocols to be medically cleared.
“After what happened, I was a little paranoid going for loose balls and being aggressive,” DeShields said. “But once I got into it and they took a lead and it was crunch time for us and we needed players to make plays, all of that went out the window real quick.”
Tennessee is a much better team with DeShields on the floor – she occupies so much of the defense’s attention and can put pinpoint passes on the hands of post players.
“She is a great player,” Florida Coach Amanda Butler said. “There are a lot of great individual players in the league, and she is certainly is one of them. When she is bound and determined to make a play, it is difficult to try and stop someone who is as talented as her.”
Russell finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds, her 16th double-double of the season.
“When I am rebounding and scoring, it helps on both ends of the floor,” Russell said. “Actually, I didn’t know I had a double-double tonight.”
Tennessee shot 39.1 percent (25-64) overall, 33.3 percent (4-12) from the arc and 71.4 percent (20-28) from the line. The Lady Vols had 18 assists, seven steals and three blocks. That figure should have been four, but a clean block by Nared was called a foul, and she slammed the ball in frustration in the third quarter, drawing a technical foul. Tennessee kept the turnovers under control with 12 and prevailed on the glass, 43-40.
Nared reached double figures with 11 points and added six boards and four steals. Middleton notched 15 points with three rebounds and two assists.
Florida shot 41.7 percent (30-72) overall, 46.2 percent (6-13) from the arc and 66.7 percent (4-6) from the line. The Gators had 15 assists, 14 turnovers, seven steals and three blocks.
“We got beat by a very good team tonight and you have to congratulate Tennessee for the things that they did well in critical moments,” Butler said. “I am really proud of the Gators tonight, and we are going to walk out of this building with our heads held high.”
Williams led Florida with 22 points, while Washington added 15 points, and Lorenzen tallied 11.
“I felt pretty good the entire game,” Williams said. “I had faith in my teammates, and I knew what we were capable of. I knew if we stuck to the right things, the right things would happen for us.”
The Lady Vols will close out the regular season in Starkville against Mississippi State, which will be trying to claim a share of the SEC title or win it outright. DeShields pointed out that every win matters right now for Tennessee.
“We are at the point in the season where we can’t afford to be on this little rollercoaster that we have been on for the past two years,” DeShields said. “We just have to be who we are and be the players we are capable of being. In turn, we will be the team we are capable of being, but we have to do that every night.”
Tennessee was a resilient team Thursday and didn’t retreat when Florida seized momentum and the lead in the fourth quarter.
“I think what you saw was a great fourth quarter of SEC basketball,” Butler said. “That’s what is going to happen in this league. Teams are going to go back and forth at each other. As much as we like to talk about the scoring runs, you have to understand that every night we have a game, those are some of the best defenses in the country, so it is inevitable that you are going to go on scoring droughts.”
In the final regular season game on “The Summitt” – Tennessee is not likely to host early rounds in the NCAA tourney – the Lady Vols found that Summitt’s fundamentals of defensive stops and rebounds will win basketball games even after going seven minutes without a field goal.
“They have a lot of fight in them,” Warlick said. “I think sometimes we play to not make mistakes and we make mistakes, but I think we’re an outstanding basketball team. Moving forward, we’re going to build off of this win. We gutted it out and showed a lot of heart and stamina towards the end of the game.”
Coach Holly Warlick
Lady Vols Diamond DeShields, Alexa Middleton and Mercedes Russell
Florida Coach Amanda Butler, Delicia Washington and Ronni Williams