Lady Vols cruise past Florida
Tennessee guard Andraya Carter, center, draws a charging foul on Florida’s Ronni Williams (1) during Thursday night’s game at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville.
KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee Lady Vols were bound and determined not to have a repeat performance in the second half Thursday night like they did in Monday’s loss to Notre Dame. Turns out, they were successful.
The No. 11 Lady Vols allowed the visiting Florida Gators to cut a once 17-point lead to just 8 in the second half, but UT rebounded and closed out their Southeastern Conference rivals in fine fashion 89-69 inside Thompson-Boling Arena.
UT (15-4, 4-2 SEC) outscored Florida by 12 points in the final 11 minutes to move ahead of the Lady Gators in the SEC standings just one-third of the way through the league schedule.
“It’s a great win for us,” Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick said. “Any win is a great win. We did some great things, played together and we talked a lot about that this week. Just proud of our effort. We had some great hustle plays and distributed the ball. I know we had some great assists. I can’t even think right now. I’m kind of happy about how we played.”
After seeing her team struggle recently in the second half of games, Warlick was glad to see the team respond and put together a solid second 20 minutes.
“We talked a lot about that this week,” Warlick said. “This team seems to let things affect them. They do one thing wrong, and then we seem to drop our shoulders. We talked a lot about refocusing and forgetting about it. It’s about players making plays, and I thought when they cut it, we stepped up and made plays.”
The Lady Vols got off to a similar start to the one they had Monday with Bashaara Graves scoring two straight buckets and Andraya Carter draining a 3-pointer just seconds after entering the game for an early 10-4 lead.
Carter added another long 3-pointer after bucket before a 3-point play by Graves pushed the lead to 18-6 with 14:23 left in the half, but UT began to get careless with their passing in the half court offense and Florida capitalized.
The Lady Gators (13-6, 3-3 SEC) pulled within 7 nearing the midway point of the half on buckets by Kayla Lewis and Jaterra Bonds, but a 3-pointer by Meighan Simmons pushed the margin back to double digits. Lewis and Cassie Peoples followed with baskets for Florida to make it 25-19.
Simmons hit another big trey near the 6-minute mark, firing one in from 30-feet to beat the shot clock, and she and Carter both added a pair of free throws to keep the pressure on for the Lady Vols. Isabelle Harrison added a layup off an outlet pass from Carter to extend the lead to 38-23 with 2:40 left in the half.
After a timeout by Florida coach Amanda Butler, the Lady Gators outscored UT 4-2 in the final 2:40 but trailed 40-27 at the half.
The Lady Vols shot 41.2 percent (14 of 34) in the first half, and they were led in scoring by Graves with 11, Harrison with 9 and Carter and Simmons with 8 each.
Florida shot only 36.7 percent (11 of 30) in the half, which included misses on all eight 3-point attempts. Lewis fired in 10 points in the opening half to lead all Gators.
Simmons continued with the hot shooting stroke in the second half, hitting a short jumper and another trey in the opening three minutes before knocking down a corner 3-ball to push the advantage to 51-32 with 16:15 on the clock.
Simmons said her energy level was a bit higher than usual after the team honored former coach Pat Summitt on ‘We Back Pat’ night at the arena.
“It added some extra oomph today going in,” Simmons said. “It was Pat’s day and I think that was the mentality for a lot of us. We went out there and we played hard. We knew we had to go out there and play for her.”
The Gators quickly cut the lead to 53-39 and had a chance to get it closer, but Bonds missed a pair of free throws and saw Harrison convert a layup on the other end. Florida did cut it to 56-46 on a 3-pointer from Lily Svete and a layup by Antoinette Bannister with 12:21 left.
Warlick called a timeout following the spurt by the visitors cut the margin to 8, and freshmen Mercedes Russell and Jordan Reynolds responded with scores on consecutive trips to move the lead back to 60-48.
A 3-pointer by Peoples kept the Lady Gators within 10 with 9:29 remaining, but a trey from Jasmine Jones out of a Florida timeout followed by a putback layup from Jones and a 3-pointer from Simmons in a 9-2 run helped UT increase the lead to 72-55 with 7:24 to go.
The Gators were whistled for a technical foul for having six players on the floor, and Simmons hit both free tosses before Jones buried a 3-pointer to make it 77-59, and the Gators never threatened the rest of the way.
After shooting better than 61 percent in the second half, the Lady Vols finished the contest shooting 50.8 percent (33 of 65) from the floor in the win. Simmons led the way with 21 points, while Graves added 17, Carter had 14, Jones tallied 13 and Harrison finished with 12 in the victory.
“Any win for us right now is huge,” Warlick said. “It’s a team builder and it’s a confidence builder, and I thought tonight we got back on track.”
Lewis led Florida with 14 points, while Ronni Williams had 12 and Bonds and Bannister both ended up with 10 in the loss.
-By Matt Daniels, Tribune Sports Editor