The Florida Gators women’s basketball team almost proved it could hold its own without senior All-American Jennifer George out on the court for the last 29 minutes Sunday, but ninth-ranked Tennessee sank 4-6 free throws in overtime to earn a 78-75 win in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
“I’ve got to give Tennessee a lot of credit for a hard fought and well-played game,” Florida coach Amanda Butler said. “They did a great job and in certain points of finding weaknesses and attacking them. I love our fight. I love this team, and I told our team that we’re on a little journey right now. We’ve got a growth process going on and part of that growth process is sometimes coming up a little bit short.”
The statistics speak for themselves when measuring how close the game was: the score was tied six times, twice being in overtime and there were seven lead changes, including three in overtime. The largest lead of the night was only nine points by Tennessee early on in the second half.
The Gators (13-5, 2-2 SEC) started out the game strong with redshirt freshman guard Carlie Needles drilling a 3-pointer for the first points on the court. Needles also drew a charge against Tennessee (13-3, 4-0 SEC) on the first play of the game to force the first of 14 Tennessee turnovers.
Freshman guard Sydney Moss fed the ball to freshman forward Christian Mercer to pull the Gators within two, 33-35 with one minute in the first half remaining. With 6.6 seconds left on the clock in the first half, Moss was fouled and sent to the free throw line. She made 1 of 2 free throws and Florida went into the locker room trailing 37-34 at half.
With 16:02 to go in the second half, the Lady Vols had a 53-44 lead over the Gators. Junior guard Jaterra Bonds sank a jumper that ignited Florida on a 13-5 run that brought the Gators within one point with 9:23 remaining on the clock. Four different players put up points during the run, with Bonds claiming four of them.
The Lady Vols broke Florida’s run by scoring four consecutive points. The Gators went on another run however after Bonds came up big with a 3-pointer to set Florida on a 7-0 streak. This gave Florida the lead, 66-64, with 4:27 remaining on the clock. The lead didn’t last long however, after making three free throws and a jumper, Tennessee was back on top by three.
Moss found January Miller in the paint who sank the ball with 29 seconds remaining in regulation to give the Gators a 70-69 lead. After being fouled Tennessee’s freshman forward Bashaara Graves made 1 of 2 free throws to even out the score at 70 all with 13 seconds in regulation left. The Gators had last possession in regulation, but Bonds wasn’t able to get a clean look forcing overtime.
The Lady Vols put up points first on the board in overtime as Tennessee’s sophomore center Isabelle Harrison put up a layup. Redshirt sophomore guard Kayla Lewis was sent to the free throw line and converted on one to put Florida within one. Mercer delivered on the next play hitting a jumper to give the Gators a 73-72 lead with 2:24 left.
A layup from Bonds held on to Florida’s lead, 75-73, with 1:23 remaining. On the next play however, Tennessee’s junior guard Meighan Simmons responded with a jumper to tie the game at 75 all. The Gators couldn’t convert on their next two plays and when Tennessee’s senior guard Kamiko Williams went to the free throw line, she converted on one to give the Lady Vols a 76-75 edge with 27 seconds left.
The Gators called a timeout with 16.9 seconds remaining. After inbounds, Mercer was fouled on the play and went to the line. Missing both, the rebound went into Tennessee’s hands and forced Florida to foul Tennessee’s Graves. Graves connected on both and gave the Lady Vols a three-point edge, 78-75.
“It was kind of one of those calculated risks,” Butler said on fouling Tennessee. “It was a bad decision, even though she only hit one. It was still a bad decision. I make a lot of bad decisions. Sometimes I make good decisions. She was one of their weaker free throw shooters, and sometimes you just have a feeling. It was tough to stop them one-on-one so sometimes you try to be creative. If I got to do it over again, I’d trust our defense.”
The last possession was in Florida’s hands but a three-point attempt from Lewis bounced off the side of the rim snapping the Gators’ 15-game home winning streak.
“I had confidence that Kayla was going to knock it down and she was open,” Bonds said. “Unfortunately she didn’t. We’re sitting here with the long faces now, but she’s going to make it next time. Whoever I pass it to will make it next time. You just have to have confidence in yourself and in your team that you’re going to make the right play.”
Bonds led Florida with 18 points while Miller and Needles combined for 22 points. Moss finished with seven points and nine rebounds while Lewis had 11 rebounds and five points against the Lady Vols.
Before George left the game, the senior forward finished with eight points along with junior center Vicky McIntyre.
“We had opportunities and we’re going to kick ourselves when we go back and look at the game in its entirety, not just the last couple plays which are the ones that seem to stick with people,” Butler said. “This was our game. We’re going to take confidence from that. We have a bye week and it’s a great opportunity for us to be really mad, really inspired, really determined, and work really hard. That’s what’s important right now.”
The Gators will be back on the court at 1 p.m. on Jan. 20 when they host No.18 South Carolina in the O’Dome.
Gator Country reporter Elizabeth Rhodes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.