"We tried to keep calm and focused and played to get a win. After last year, I thought we were at a different level mentally and emotionally than tonight. We certainly dodged a bullet. If we play them again, it will be with the utmost respect."
It was a game that Florida felt like it let slip away before a home crowd of 4,103 that was peppered with Tennessee orange.
"I'm very, very proud of the way that we played," Florida Coach Amanda Butler said. "I thought we showed tremendous toughness and tremendous fight. There were a lot of reasons for us not to play with that consistent fight. The biggest was that we didn't start that quickly. I am proud of how hard we battled.
"I knew for us to win, it would come down to toughness. I thought we did as good as we possibly could have with our toughness. We just couldn't get a couple of rebounds that we needed. We know that we should have won. Playing Tennessee close was not our objective; it was to win. I'm disappointed we couldn't close it out."
Tennessee (15-1, 3-0) started the game off well by getting the ball inside to Kelley Cain, who scored on a putback, on a feed from Shekinna Stricklen and then on a turn-around after a Taber Spani pass inside to take a 6-0 lead. Stricklen hit a stick-back of a missed jumper and the Lady Vols took an 8-0 lead.
Florida (9-8, 2-2), called timeout to adjust its defense – the Gators brought a crowd when Cain touched the ball after that and also switched into some zone looks to pack the paint – and that could have been a godsend for the Lady Vols, who can fire away with efficiency from behind the arc.
But Angie Bjorklund misfired on all four shot attempts in the first half and her next three in the second half.
"Angie is a great shooter, but tonight she was rushed," Summitt said. "We wouldn't trade her for anybody in the world. She'll come back, get home and get back in the gym. She's a marked woman; everyone is after her."
As a team, Tennessee was 2-7 (28.6 percent) from long range in the first half, and the Lady Vols went into the break with a slim 32-29 lead.
Florida, meanwhile was scorching the nets from behind the arc – Steffi Sorensen scored the Gators' first nine points on three 3-pointers – and took a lead, 43-38, just four minutes into the second half.
"We didn't change anything significant," Butler said of the timeout after Cain scored the game's first six points. "We played a little bit more zone because Cain did a great job starting off of dominating the paint. She's one of the best posts in the country. In terms of adjustments on the offensive end, we just kept doing what we were doing – attacking, staying confident and a couple of shots fell."
Bjorklund didn't make her first shot, a three-pointer, until the 8:51 mark of the game, and it cut Florida's lead to 50-48. But the Gators scored the next six points to take an eight-point lead, and it took another Bjorklund three – this one lofted well behind the arc on the wing – to draw the Lady Vols to within five points, 56-51.
The Gators went cold from behind the arc in the second half – 5-16 (31.3 percent) after hitting 4-10 (40 percent) in the first half – so they took the ball inside, made some shots and also got fouled to maintain their lead.
But then Glory Johnson got loose for a transition basket and Cain went to work inside to cut the lead to 60-56, with 4:35 left to play. It was Cain's first field goal since the first half.
The basket was set up on a perfect entry pass from Kamiko Williams, and she found Cain again on the next possession to pull Tennessee to within two points, 60-58. A third assist by Williams reached Johnson's hands and the Lady Vols stayed within two, 62-60, and then Williams tied the game, 62-62, on a smooth jumper in the paint.
When Bjorklund found Cain inside, Tennessee took the lead, 64-62. But Florida wasn't done. Lonnika Thompson tied it with a short jumper off a fast break – Tennessee didn't pick up the ball in transition – and the Lady Vols called timeout to set up the last shot.
Summitt opted not to call a set play but instead instructed the guards to look inside and make sure they took care of the ball. Cain was blanketed, so Williams fed the ball to Johnson, who then drew the double team. Bjorklund cut to the basket, got the ball from Johnson and scored on the reverse layup for the final score, 66-64.
"Initially it was to get our posts the ball, but it just broke down," Bjorklund said. "Florida's aggressive defense caused us trouble executing our offense the entire game. We are lucky to get this win."
Florida set up a final play and got an open three from Thompson after an out-of-bounds pass and then a pass to the wing, but the shot missed its mark, and Johnson secured the ball.
"That play is something we run every single day," Sorensen said. "My heart goes out to LT, but plenty of things – when you look back at it – are why we lost the game. If I stop my man (Bjorklund) from scoring on the last play of the game, we would be having a different conversation. It was a well-designed play; the shot just didn't fall. I couldn't be more proud of our team tonight. We fought hard, and it speaks a lot about Florida basketball."
Summitt said on her post-game radio show with Mickey Dearstone that she didn't think her team "came here respecting the team we were going to play."
The Gators were a senior-driven team last season and beat the Lady Vols in Gainesville. This year, Florida has excellent outside shooters and a still-developing post game.
The Lady Vols started the game by pounding the ball into Cain and then got away from that approach, to their detriment, because the plan was to stay inside.
"That's how we got into this close game," Cain said on the post-game radio show.
Cain did her part by hitting her first three shots, but she went down 21 seconds before halftime after getting slammed in her right hip while defending inside. She was helped from the floor and was still in the locker room when the second half started – Alyssia Brewer started in her place – but she returned for the second half with a limp and a desire to win the game.
"It was very difficult to come back, but I knew my team needed me," Cain said. "I felt like I would be leaving the team hanging if I couldn't go back out there. I had to suck it up and go out there for my team."
Cain finished the game with 17 points on 6-7 shooting and 5-6 from the free throw line and 10 boards for the double-double. On a night when the ball was squirting loose from several players in orange, Cain had two assists and just one turnover.
"Kelley is a lot more mature and tough mentally than a year ago," Summitt said. "She's definitely been a difference-maker."
Cain got help from Brewer, who played a solid 17 minutes in relief and scored nine points on 3-5 shooting and perfect 3-3 from the line, plus eight rebounds.
Johnson, like Bjorklund, didn't score in the first half, but she dominated on the glass, especially in the second half, and ended up with eight points and 10 rebounds. Like Cain, she had two assists and no turnovers. Cain and Johnson had one steal each.
But the ball was loose for much of the evening as Tennessee didn't squeeze rebounds and tried to complete passes that were better attempted at nearby Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, where the Gators play football.
Tennessee tallied 25 turnovers with Stricklen accounting for nine miscues. Brewer had four, and after Briana Bass had one turnover in one minute of play while trying to break pressure, Summitt kept her on the bench. That put the ball primarily in Stricklen's hands – she logged 38 minutes on the floor – though Williams brought some ball handling relief.
"The ball was like a hot potato tonight," Summitt said. "We had some really poor passing angles, but we have to give Florida credit. I really think they made us rush, and that disappoints me, but it also says something about their defense and their overall play."
Florida pressured the guards well away from the basket, and Tennessee struggled to adapt. Summitt had eight players log double digits in minutes as she tried to find the right combination to both mount a comeback and make stops.
That ultimately turned out to be the on-ball defense of Williams, who slowed down the Gator attack, and the late clutch shooting of Williams, Cain and Bjorklund, none more important than the layup to win the game.
"I'm definitely a shooter," Bjorklund said. "I don't shoot too many layups; I'm glad that one went in. I saw Glory get doubled, so I just cut to the hoop and it was open."
Butler had considerable praise for Bjorklund.
"Bjorklund is a very, very talented player," Butler said. "I admire the way she leads her team. I didn't think she played very well tonight, but a lot of that had to do with our defense. You know she's a champion because she had a tough night, but she made plays when her team needed her to.
"I still don't know how she got that shot off. It was a tough play and that's the kind of plays you expect a player like her to make."
Sorensen, who was guarding Bjorklund, said, "She's a great player and she hadn't been hitting all game. I was as close as I could be without fouling. She cut backdoor, which I was expecting, and then she just caught the ball on the baseline and did a reverse. She's a great player, and she made a great play."
Stricklen struggled with her ball security, but she also hit several shots in both halves to keep Tennessee in the hunt. The sophomore guard finished with 14 points and was 2-4 from behind the arc. She also had six rebounds, four assists and a late steal when Tennessee was making its run.
Florida was led by Sorensen with 12 points and Thompson, who added 10. The Gators got help off the bench from Jennifer Mossor and Jennifer George, who both scored 10 points and got inside the Tennessee defense. Mossor also hit a three-pointer, and George pulled down seven boards.
"Jennifer George was huge in stepping in there and just battling kids much taller than her," Butler said. "There's not much better athletes in the country than Glory in terms of athletic ability. It was a great growing up game for George."
The Gators had 16 steals to just three for Tennessee. Sorensen and George had five each, and Thompson, who tallied two, brought a lot of ball pressure.
"I thought LT really set the tone for that," Butler said. "As good of a player as Stricklen is, I don't know that point guard is her biggest strength. We tried to exploit that with our point guard and it fell on the shoulders of Lonnika. She did a great job of setting the tone and she's so talented. On every play, we expected to get a stop or be disruptive. I just really thought our consistent toughness led to all of those turnovers."
Tennessee dominated on the glass, 46-24, but the turnovers took away offensive possessions.
"I give a lot of credit to Florida," Bjorklund said. "They came out a lot tougher than us. We have to match their intensity. We didn't and that's how they started to build their lead. In the end, we became more composed and calm in our offense. At the same time, we were making defensive stops."
Florida got 15 points off those miscues, but Tennessee got the same amount of points from just 12 Florida turnovers. The domination on the glass and hot shooting in the second half – Tennessee was 14-23 (60.9 percent) after shooting 11-30 (36.7 percent) before the break meant the Lady Vols were positioned for a late run. They ended up shooting 47.2 percent for the game.
Cain being able to return also was a factor in the comeback. She told Dearstone after the game that her hip was sore but OK. Her surgically repaired right knee felt good before the game at shoot-around – it had been sore lately with the frigid weather in Knoxville – and then she had to handle a hard shot to the hip.
The 6'6 center told Summitt she wanted to play, "Coach, I can go back in," Summitt repeated on the radio. "I took her at her word."
"We had to make a run, we made a run," Summitt added. "We had to get stops, we got stops."
During timeouts late in the game Summitt said she told Bjorklund, "Angie, you've got to get open and we've got to knock down some shots."
Summitt said on her post-game radio show that the team didn't execute its screens well – neither screener nor the one using the screen – and rushed some shots. But in the final five minutes the Lady Vols settled down.
"Everyone really had composure and kept it together," Summitt said. "Our huddles were good. The team's composure was an indication they wanted to win and weren't going to give the game away."
Summitt said the team would get back to work to get ready for Vanderbilt on Sunday (6 p.m. Eastern, ESPNU, gates open at 4:30 p.m.) The coaches will have plenty of film to review from the squeaker over Florida.
"We've got some great game footage on what not to do," Summitt said. "We've got great footage of how to close out a win."
It's a stretch of games that will have a lot of impact on the top of the league standings. Georgia lost to Vandy on Thursday, so Tennessee is the only team still unbeaten in conference play.
"It's very important because we've got a lot of tough teams coming up," Stricklen said. "Every game is very important and especially on the road, and when you play at home you really can't lose at home."