Even though they were favored, this was a big game for the Lady Gators and Amanda Butler. This was the game that would measure how far the Gator program had come—the game to determine if their rise in the polls was legitimate.
Pat Summitt had only lost twice to the Gator program in her entire coaching career. The Lady Gators hadn't beaten the Volunteers on their home court in 12 years. Twelve years—wow, what dominance! So the stage was set and the expectations were high.
They had faced Auburn earlier in the season and now ranked 4/6 in the country, a game after losing their point guard to an ACL tear. They were out of sorts that whole game. Sha Brooks stated that "if they faced them now they would be a different team." Well, maybe they will get their chance in the SEC Tournament.
For now the goals for the Gators were to keep pace with the Lady Tigers, hold serve at home, and play lights out on the road and see if some wins come along with it.
The Gators came out flat and outhustled in the first half. They were getting fouled and not hitting their free throws. Steffi Sorensen was not hitting open looks from the outside, they were all missing easy lay-ups, and Tennessee was winning the battle on the boards. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right?
Well, the half ended 29-27. Coach Butler at this point had to be pleased. Tennessee ranked 12/17th or not, this is still a Pat Summitt-coached team, and they were going to give it their best.
Brooks was outstanding again; she scored a game-high 29 points and really came alive in the second half. There was a stretch when the Gators were down seven. The Lady Volunteers led 50-43. Brooks took over the game and made two straight three-pointers. On the next play she took a charge. You could feel the momentum change in the building at that point. The Gators looked energized.
Marshae Dotson was perfect from the line at 6-6 and had some key rebounds when the game was still in doubt. Sorensen came alive and hit a key three-point shot when Tennessee brought themselves within two of the lead. From that point on Tennessee had to foul, and Florida finally made some free throws coming down the stretch to put the game away. They hit 5-6 free throws in the last 28 seconds.
The Gators turned up the heat on defense too. Butler had stated that "no one had dared to pressure them full court," something Tennessee was known for.
"I really felt like the difference in the ballgame was when we decided we were going to play defense,” Butler said. “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. They’re too good for us to give individuals like that easy baskets.”
Pat Summitt complained the entire game about the disparity in fouls call. She said, "I am still trying to figure out how we didn't get to the free throw line. 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 three-ball way too much. We were 5-of-22 from there, and our guards just really struggled tonight."
She was also very intense during timeouts in trying to get her players to respond better. But this was the Gators' moment, and I give them credit for stepping up, for showing such calmness and leadership.
“I want to give credit where credit is due,” 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.”
I personally thought they were a little too calm. But this team is for real. They have all the parts to go deep in the tournament. I think they have enough to put together a serious run in the SEC Tournament. The Gator Athletic program has a SEC Championship in every sport except Women's Basketball. I am positive with Amanda Butler at the helm a SEC Championship is on its way.
The schedule doesn't get any easier though, as they head to Nashville on Thursday to face the 20th-ranked Vanderbilt Commodores. The Gators are 4-5 against ranked opponents this season, and Vanderbilt is coming off of a win against Kentucky 72-62.
Noteworthy: The Gators are off to their best start in 24 games in program history. Marshae Dotson became the 10th player in program history to get 800 rebounds. The crowd of 8,060 was the second-largest crowd to ever watch the women's team play.