But Tennessee's fifth starter, Nicky Anosike, didn't score a point, and the Lady Vols only got four points from their bench. But the game was lost for Tennessee at the free throw line – the Lady Vols missed 10 – and in not securing the ball. Tennessee had 28 turnovers with 16 coming in the first half as Florida brought its full-court pressure. Tennessee also had defensive breakdowns – as evidenced by Florida's 52 second-half points.
"I think they had another valuable lesson handed to them on defense and taking care of the ball," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "Those two things killed us. When you're looking at the stat line, and you're looking at, in particular, our turnovers, and you see obviously that we have not taken care of the basketball – take your pick, well (as she reads the stat line) we had a player with six, three, two, five, seven, three – that's enough right there. We can't win like that against quality opponents. They had 12 turnovers. Probably what bothered me most is how we went into that overtime and mishandled the ball, didn't execute."
Tennessee clawed back from an 11-point deficit with 9:50 left and tied the game in regulation when Zolman hit a 20-footer with 8.4 seconds left. A defensive stop on the other end left the teams knotted at 82-82 at the end of 40 minutes.
But Tennessee turned the ball over on its first possession in overtime and was back on its heels again. Florida (20-7, 8-6) also had recovered from a miserable shooting start – at one point in the first half the Gators were hitting 11 percent from the field – with several players finding their range. With one second left on the shot clock and Tennessee leading by three, 87-84, Gator senior center Brittany Davis buried a three-pointer and tied the game again.
Davis led Florida with a career-high 29 points, and freshman guard Sha Brooks had 25. The three other senior starters, Dalila Eshe, Sarah Lowe and Danielle Santos, had 13, 15 and 13 points, respectively. Nobody from Florida's bench scored. Lowe, the Florida point guard, played 45 minutes without a turnover and had six assists.
That speaks to her efficiency as a player. It also says volumes about Tennessee's inability or reluctant nature to pressure perimeter players on defense after the loss of guard Alexis Hornbuckle.
"First of all, I don't want to take anything away from Florida when I talk about Tennessee," Summitt said. "I thought their guard play was a lot more efficient than our guard play. I thought Davis inside just had her way. I think it goes right back to two things: a lack of commitment to make stops on the defensive end. We had a lot of defensive breakdowns, but this team has had a lot of defensive breakdowns all year. We've been trying to run different zones, vary our man and try to cover up some of our weaknesses. Obviously we couldn't do that today because Florida ran their offenses with great efficiency, and they just made big shots. If you look at Davis and Brooks I thought they were outstanding. Yet I think we had some lapses that contributed to that.
"Secondly, we're short on our guard play so we have to all learn to handle better. Shanna, obviously she turned the basketball over, but we do this by committee. When we don't have a point guard on the floor that can beat people off the dribble then you have to beat people off the pass. We had some poor decisions in our zone offensive attack. But on a positive note, we still had a chance to win the ballgame. I thought we had good execution to get it into overtime, and then we didn't execute once we got there. And they did."
Zolman did have seven turnovers – she had to move to the point guard spot after Hornbuckle broke her wrist Feb. 12 – but she also became one of only seven Lady Vols in school history to record a double-double in points and assists with 22 and 10 and the first to do so in 11 years. The others were Susan Clower (1981, 10/10); Lea Henry (1980, 14/10); Michelle Marciniak (1995, 10/10); Dawn Marsh (1988, 11/11); Carla McGhee (1990, 12/10); and Holly Warlick (1980, 10/10).
Zolman and Fluker were honored before the game for senior day with their families in attendance – Zolman's parents were at center court and Fluker had her mother and little sister waiting for her with Summitt – and a video montage of career highlights on the big screens in the arena. Florida's four seniors also were recognized before the game with flowers from Summitt, but they left the floor during Tennessee's ceremony.
"This was our senior night just as much as it was Tennessee's senior night," Lowe said. "It was our last regular season road game. We needed this game to put ourselves where we need to be in the SEC Tournament, and we got it. We actually went out in the hallway and completely zoned it out. The five starters were out there jumping around, trying to stay warm and not even worrying about it. Like I said you could say all you want about anybody out there – I respect every single person that played on that floor – but tonight it was about us. That's our focus. That's any focus."
Fluker and Zolman tried to shelve their emotions at the start of the game, but Fluker said she was a little too eager at the start. Her first shot shot over the top of the backboard, which actually managed to settle her down.
"After the first shot that I took that went behind the backboard Nicky looked at me and was like, ‘You need to calm down,' " Fluker said. "I think I was a little overanxious to get off to a good start and do everything I could for my team to help us get the ending that we wanted. Unfortunately we didn't. But it was exciting, emotional. It just took a little while to calm down. I think everybody was overanxious and wanted to get this win. I thought today was like, do it right for the seniors. We just started out a little overanxious. I enjoyed it, unfortunate outcome. My mindset was do what I need to do for my team, the thing that the coaches asked me to do was step up my game."
Fluker did that and then some by tying her career high and also grabbing a career-high 16 rebounds while playing 41 minutes. Lin Dunn, a WNBA scout for the Indiana Fever, was watching Fluker during the game and seemed to come away impressed, especially by the minutes she played and her conditioning level.
Zolman was busy trying to make senior night one to remember, too.
"It was exciting. I was looking forward (as in ahead) to it for a while because I've seen the seniors and how emotional it was for them," Zolman said. "It was weird, being out there and knowing that it was my night and Tye's night and try to have fun with it and be able to contain your emotions and not get so hyped up that you can't play and think how you normally think out there. It was definitely an experience that I won't forget, how much appreciation the fans show, not only tonight but throughout the season and my four years here and then my family and friends coming down."
Summitt took the time in her post-game remarks to laud her two seniors.
"I think both seniors have been tremendous in contributing to this program on and off the court," she said. "They've been great students; academics have been a priority for Tye and for Shanna. They've obviously worked hard to improve their games. If you look at Shanna as a freshman and you see her now she's one of the most improved basketball players to come through this program. You have to credit her work. She's quicker, she's stronger, she's actually getting her shot off a lot quicker and her speed up and down the floor.
"You look at Tye she came in maybe in shape to play two minutes at a time, and now she's been an anchor for us and really worked hard inside. She's rebounding better than she's ever rebounded. I'm really proud of her progress. I thought last year she did a lot of good things for us, but this year she has done a lot of great things."
Neither Zolman nor Fluker was devastated by the loss, and both were ready to acknowledge that Tennessee caused its own downfall with its defense.
"That's the thing that bothers me the most because we've known all year our defense is what's going to carry us, our defense and rebounding," Zolman said. "We have improved in the aspect of rebounding, but defensively we're still not inconsistent. In one game we'll play it 40 minutes, in another game we'll play for 20 minutes in another, and then another game it's not really a top priority all game."
Tennessee dominated the boards, 54-38, and got 17 second-chance points to seven for Florida. So that issue appears to have been settled. But as March draws ever closer – the Lady Vols will open SEC Tournament play on Friday against the winner of the Auburn-South Carolina game – Summitt is still looking for consistent defensive play. Part of the problem is her roster is loaded with scorers and lacks stoppers.
"I really don't think that throughout the team we had a player in high school who played that role on their team," Summitt said. "We have players that were offensive go-tos. Now if we had any one player who might have been a defensive specialist it would have been Alexis Hornbuckle, and she set the tone for us.
"Was it Shanna Zolman? No. Was it Tye Fluker? No. Probably Candace Parker would be the next one that her team had to rely a lot on her for defense. Dominique Redding? Absolutely not. She was a shooter. Spencer? Shooter. (Lindsey) Moss? Shooter. So you can just go down there and put a checkmark by all of them."
Zolman said taking a group of scorers and converting them into defenders isn't an easy adjustment.
"I'm not going to lie. It's very difficult, but Tye and I have been in this program four years," Zolman said. "We've known that. We've been part of teams that have been absolutely unbelievable defensively. If we bring it that's great, but every single other person has to bring it. And I'm not saying that Tye and I are bringing it every single game for all 40 minutes either. We're definitely not perfect in that area by any means. I just think it's a consistent mindset that we all have to have game in and game out, that we need to get stops, and we're going to get stops. There's no ifs, ands, or buts about it. We're just going to go out to do it. We needed that tonight, especially in overtime, but we didn't have it."
Summitt entered this season bemoaning the past season when she had the worst shooting team in her coaching history. Offense was the focus since September workouts.
"That's what they want to do, and that's great," Summitt said of her scorers. "We've been shooting the ball better this year than we shot it in years. But now we've got to defend it, and that's where their mindset must change if they want to stay alive in postseason regardless of what kind of defense we're in."
It will be quite a challenge. Hornbuckle is sidelined with a broken right wrist. There are only two true guards on the roster in Zolman and Lindsey Moss, and they are shooting guards. The team's point guard to start the season, Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, left the team in December and transferred to Maryland.
Tennessee is looking for help in the juco ranks, and Alberta Auguste of Central Florida Community College was in the stands Sunday on her visit and attended practice Saturday, but no reinforcements will arrive until next fall.
The Lady Vols knew Florida was going to press – it's rather shocking that the Gators were the first team to do so since Hornbuckle, the team's best ball-handler who can break down a press with the dribble was lost – and after the game Summitt wished she had answered it with more pressure.
"I told our coaching staff and our team that we're going to see a lot of full court pressure," Summitt said. "I'm surprised we hadn't seen more from other teams. Florida typically presses. I think if you're looking at Tennessee and you're looking at the number of ball handlers and players that can beat you off the dribble then you're coming in here, and you're going to press them.
"The one regret I have is that we didn't press them earlier, because I thought we had some effective possessions with our press. I always said the saying is press a pressing team, but I thought I waited a little bit too late to go do it. Obviously, they were doubling the ball as much as they could and spacing really well in their traps, and I thought that bothered us, particularly when we couldn't beat them off the dribble. It was hard for us. We had to attack the press with short passes; we didn't get many opportunities to go long. Therefore they kept their pressure extended."
Florida coach Carolyn Peck said the team used this week of practice – the Gators didn't have a game Thursday – to fine-tune their defense.
"The thing that we wanted to do was really go back to something that we've worked on since day one, and that was our defense," Peck said. "We wanted to extend our defense 94 feet. We were passive when we played at Auburn, so having this last week to work was something we definitely wanted to work on, to stay aggressive and try to see how much time we could take off the shot clock because we knew that if Tennessee was able to execute their offenses, they were going to be able to get the shots they wanted. With a team like Tennessee, that's something you don't want that to happen.
"The thing that we really focused on was to stay on what we do. We've worked from day one on our press and what our rotations are and building that trust, getting a trap here, and really keeping the pressure on. I think that that keeps our focus and concentration by going the other direction. We were fortunate we forced Tennessee into 28 turnovers, and that's no easy feat. I compliment how hard our team played."
Lowe said her team wasn't intimidated by a rather raucous crowd of 17,595 and wasn't hesitant to take it to Tennessee.
"Coach tells us time after time again that it's not necessarily the best players, it's the best team that wins," Lowe said. "You look at us from top to bottom, we don't have a McDonald's All-American, we don't have All-Americans, we don't have all the hype. But at the same time you know every time we step out on that floor that you're going to get 100 percent from every single one of us.
"That's my job. As a senior point guard that's what I've got to do. It starts with me, and it infiltrates into everybody else. It was fun. When you have 20,000 people cheering against you, you'll find the energy somewhere, somehow. You just have to. There's no doubt about it. I think that tonight you saw that from all of us. It's a mentality, a mindset. The tougher team won tonight, and I feel 100 percent confident saying that."
If the two teams were to meet again in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the SEC tourney, they would both have to get to Sunday's title game. The loss to Florida, an unranked team despite its now 20-win season and the first time Tennessee has ever lost to an unranked team at Thompson-Boling Arena, definitely hurts the Lady Vols' case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
"It certainly doesn't help us; it doesn't do anything to help us," Summitt said. "You'll have to see what happens around the country. It's early right now to tell until you get into your conference (tournament) play."
Summitt seemed certain that her team would recover from this loss and not carry it over into Little Rock.
"I told them we're Tennessee. It's not like anyone in this country is going to feel sorry for us because we got beat today, and we're going into tournament play," she said. "We always make this a priority when we're going into an SEC Tournament, and we're preparing for postseason. I said I was proud of how they came back and put the game in overtime. They have yet to buy into defense and really think they have to bring it every possession. And now they have to do that, and they have to take care of the ball.
"I told them, ‘People are going to press us.' So if we can't beat them off the dribble we've got to beat them off the pass. We have to be much more efficient. But we're not going to hang our heads. They don't want to go to Arkansas and lose and come back here and be with me until we go into postseason play for the NCAA. Do you think? I wouldn't. I'd advise don't do that. That's just too much practice time."
Fluker seemed ready already to get ready for the postseason.
"I think we fought with a lot of heart to come back from being down by 11 and just to show that we had that in us," she said. "We shouldn't have put ourselves in that position but like Shanna said came with it the whole game. You can take different parts of this game and get a lot of confidence from it and use it as motivation to come back and work hard tomorrow and any other day that we have to prepare for the SEC Tournament for us to reach our goal."