In a game with major seeding implications for both the SEC and NCAA Tournaments, Tennessee found a way to overcome a slow start on senior night to beat Florida 74-70.
Several times during her postgame press conference on Thursday, Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick referred to the “fight” her team possessed.
That fight showed for all 40 minutes, as UT overcame a slow and sloppy start. Four players on Tennessee’s roster scored in double figures against the Gators, which is a staggering number when considering each team’s aggressive style of defense.
At the beginning of both the first and fourth quarters, Florida took off on an 8-0 run that seemed all but insurmountable the way the Gators were playing during each run. However, Tennessee showed the type of grit it will need in the postseason as Warlick’s bunch battled back on both occasions.
From tipoff until almost halfway through the opening quarter, the Lady Vols couldn’t buy a bucket to save their lives or stop the Gators’ slashing offensive attack. Then, with 5:31 remaining in the first quarter, junior Jaime Nared finally put UT on the board with a pair of free throws.
From then until halftime, it looked as if the Lady Vols couldn’t be stopped, finishing the half on a 19-6 run and leading 35-32 at the half.
Florida took the lead back in the third quarter. However, once again Tennessee showed its strength as it fought tooth-and-nail until the final moments.
After a Haley Lorenzen three-pointer with 3:58 left, Florida held a 68-61 lead. The lead was small, but it looked like Florida had its foot on Tennessee’s throat and the Gators seemed to be hammering the final nail in the Lady Vols’ coffin.
However, as Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast my friend!”
Tennessee took off on a quick 5-0 run before Florida’s Ronni Williams fouled out and Schaquilla Nunn followed that with a free throw to bring the Lady Vols within one. Nunn hasn’t been one to shine a lot this season for Tennessee. However, as Warlick stated after the game when asked about Nunn’s impact on the team, her message was simple and clear.
Warwick said that Nunn “has made a difference with this basketball team.”
She made a difference in this win, too, and it was a big one. With just over 36 seconds left, Nunn scored her second basket of the game to give the Lady Vols a 69-68 lead.
They didn’t surrender this lead, and Nunn added four more from the charity stripe to secure the victory.
Besides Nunn, the win was also fueled by several other players and junior Alexa Middleton was quick to note just that afterwards.
“I think it was just a team effort, and we all came in clutch at different points,” Middleton said.
Mercedes Russell finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds for her 16th double-double of the season. Diamond DeShields returned with a vengeance, putting up 15 points and notching 10 rebounds as well. DeShields just missed recording a triple-double with a career high nine assists in the game.
Middleton herself also had 15 points and with a flurry of baskets in the second half, she also sparked the run that carried Tennessee through its final 20 minutes. Nared finished with 11 points of her own after a slow start. However, the final of Nared’s points put the game on ice at 72-68.
Ronni Williams led Florida with 22 points and she was followed by Delicia Washington with 15.
The Lady Vols next play Sunday in Starkville as they face No. 3 Mississippi State before traveling to Greenville, South Carolina for the SEC Tournament.
Tip-off against Mississippi State is slated for 5:00 p.m. ET and the game will be shown on ESPN2.
Also important to note is with Kentucky’s big win over the third ranked Bulldogs on Thursday, that leaves slim odds that the Lady Vols can earn a double-bye and a top-four seeding in the SEC Tournament. Tennessee will most likely enter its final regular season game in sixth place, but will still have a shot at being the four seed in the tournament, assuming they can get some help from a few other teams.
The Lady Vols will enter tied with Texas A&M for fifth, but will be in sixth place thanks to the Aggies owning the tiebreaker between the two teams. UT will need a loss by both the Aggies and Missouri in their final game if they hope to move up in the SEC standings. Tennessee will also need to beat the third ranked Bulldogs on their home court on Sunday if they want to earn the double-bye.