"I want to give credit where credit is due," Pat Summitt said. "I think this Florida team really plays well together. They have a veteran group that understands a commitment to defense, to rebounding and to sharing the basketball. I knew it would be a tough challenge for us."
The Lady Vols also showed that commitment for the first 33 minutes of the game as they dominated on the glass – Tennessee had a whopping 49-36 advantage on the boards – identified the primary three-point shooter and played stiff post defense.
But Florida's Sha Brooks single-handedly went on an 11-2 run for Florida and a 50-43 lead for Tennessee with 7:29 remaining became a two-point lead for the Gators, 54-52, with 4:27 left in the game.
Tennessee stayed within striking distance, but its guards were misfiring from behind the arc and Florida held off the Lady Vols for the final score, 66-57.
"I think Florida picked up their defensive intensity at that time and I think offensively we had some bad possessions," Summitt said. "We tried to do our own things at times and didn't get the touches in the paint that we needed. I thought that Florida did a great job keeping us out of the paint.
"The other thing is we didn't get quick ball movement. We weren't in a good rhythm at that time. We were just not as aggressive as we needed to be – particularly with our ball reversal and attacking the paint."
Florida deployed a trapping zone defense and instead of taking the ball to the basket – where the 6'6 Kelley Cain was waiting – the Lady Vol guards reversed pivot and headed towards the center of the court.
Cain was 6-7 from the field when she did get the ball – she had five offensive boards and cleaned up several misses from wayward shots from the perimeter – and tallied 12 points and 10 rebounds in 24 minutes of play as she continues to surge in her comeback from knee injury.
Cain was selected as Player of the Game by Mickey Dearstone of the Lady Vol Radio Network.
"I don't like it when people say we're young," Cain said when asked if the maturity of Florida trumped the youth of Tennessee.
That's a good sign for Tennessee because Cain is a redshirt freshman returning from major knee surgery and three blows to the joint this season and her production will be key to determine how Tennessee finishes the regular season.
"I think Kelley Cain did a great job," Summitt said.
Summitt compared it to a play late in the game when Alyssia Brewer led the break and instead of either finding a guard immediately or scoring at the rim coast to coast, she went into the paint and flipped a pass toward the wing and out of bounds to the Lady Vols bench. Tennessee had just scored on an Angie Bjorklund 3-pointer to take a 47-41 lead with 10:25 left in the game, and Brewer got a steal deep on Florida's end.
"Just score," Summitt said on the radio. "We've got to have a different mindset in our post game."
Summitt removed Brewer from the game – though she would return – and the freshman forward sat down in frustration.
The pass – or rather, lost opportunity to increase the lead – clearly upset the coach.
"I'll see that when I go to sleep tonight," Summitt said.
The team will see that turnover and the other 18 at film session on Monday, although that means the players also will see two charging calls against Bjorklund, a shove-out of Alex Fuller under the basket, a travel call against Shekinna Stricklen and an uncalled trip on Briana Bass that had Summitt livid at the officials during the game.
But other turnovers were costly, especially a shot clock violation when Tennessee was trying to come back in the final minutes and entry passes to the paint that needed to be shortened.
"We need to watch all of our turnovers," Summitt said. "I want to watch every one of them."
Summitt won't need to spend much time watching free throws. Her team was 2-8 from the line while Florida was 20-29.
"I am still trying to figure out how we didn't get to the free throw line," Summitt said. "That to me is kind of a mystery. We were 2-for-8, so when we got there, we weren't very good. They were 20-for-29 so obviously that is a big margin right there and that is one of the differences in the game. We settled for the 3-ball way too much. We were 5-of-22 from there and our guards just really struggled tonight."
Tennessee shot 36.8 percent overall, 22.7 percent from behind the arc and 25.0 percent from the free throw line.
Despite those desultory percentages the Lady Vols had the lead and the momentum late in the second half before Brooks got loose.
Brooks led all scorers with 29 points. She was joined in double figures by Marshae Dotson with 10 points but outside of the sensational senior guard, Florida struggled from the field, shooting 37.0 percent overall and 6-18 (33.3 percent) from behind the arc. Brooks was 3-5 from long range, but the other Gators combined to go 3-13 from three-point range.
"I thought for the most part, you had two pretty athletic teams pushing tempo," Summitt said. "One of the hardest things to do is to defend in the open court when someone is coming at you full speed. Overall, I thought we did a decent job in the open floor. The hardest thing to defend (is) one-on-one dribble drives. That's why we decided to go zone, but they picked us apart, so we had to go back man. They challenged us in a lot of ways on the defensive end."
Florida Coach Amanda Butler cited the Gators' defense as the difference in the game.
"We were confident that our offense was going to come, but we knew if we were going to have a chance against a team like that, it was going to be about stops," Butler said. "They're too good for us to give individuals like that easy baskets."
The crowd of 8,060 was the second largest in program history since Feb. 11, 2001, when 12,222 fans watched Tennessee play Florida at the McConnell Center.
"It's hard for me to not start cheering with the crowd," said Butler, a former Gator player. "I get caught up in all that energy. I think we have the best fans – Gator fans are passionate about winning and they want to see their programs become the best."
Butler applauded her team's effort at the end.
"When the talent level is equal, it's going to come down to who wants it more," Butler said. "That's what you keep seeing with this team. We know that if the outcome of a ballgame is going to be determined by effort, then we are going to be in good shape."
Summitt likely didn't have issues with effort by her team – the Lady Vols dominated the board, scored 17 second-chance points and got 22 points off the bench from Cain (12), Bass (four) and Brewer (six), but she had some issues with execution.
She said on her post-game radio show that an emphasis in practice would be angle of passes and post feeds, especially shortening the distance between passes and post player. With Cain making a solid comeback from her knee issues, an emphasis on post play would be paramount. Also, Brewer, despite her miscue on the fast break, was 3-5 from the field and has a soft turn-around jumper from short and midrange.
The guard play also will be addressed as the perimeter players combined to shoot 10-40. Bjorklund scored 16 points but was 6-20 from the field, Stricklen added seven points but was 3-13. Bass hit a three-pointer in the first half but was 1-6 overall. Bass started the second half but ran into a screen by Sharielle Smith and took a hard shot across the face. She left the game but was able to return.
The three guards also combined for 14 of Tennessee's turnovers with just six assists. Stricklen did get on the boards with 12 rebounds, but overall it was a tough outing for the backcourt.
"Our guard play was not very good," Summitt said.
Tennessee did, however, start the game well with Stricklen finding Cain on the break, and Bass feeding Bjorklund underneath and then behind the arc for two assists. Tennessee led at halftime, 29-27, and while the lead changed 12 times with eight ties in the game, the Lady Vols steadily built a lead and held the seven-point edge with 7:29 left.
But it was wiped out with the offensive flurry by Brooks and four turnovers and eight missed three-pointers – though four long-range shots came in the final 19 seconds – by Tennessee over that final span.
"We just caved at the end," Summitt said. "We had some poor decisions on the court."