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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - David doesn't always beat Goliath.

Two years after UF pulled a stunning road upset against Tennessee on its Senior Day, this go-around went much differently.

While the Gators (16-12, 5-8 Southeastern Conference) cling to a small bit of hope for an NCAA Tournament bid, they learned why the No. 3 Volunteers (26-2, 12-1 SEC) will contend for a second straight NCAA Championship in an 88-61 rout in front of 16,532 fans Thursday night.

"We don't look at it like, 'Well, it's Tennessee, we're not supposed to beat them anyway,'" UF coach Amanda Butler said. "Did we get beat by a good team? Yes. Did we know we had to play well to beat them? Absolutely. But we fell short of that. There's no letting ourselves off the hook."

Junior guard Sha Brooks led UF with a game-high 27 points, one shy of her career high, but her team was completely outmatched against Tennessee, whose 12 SEC victories have come by an average margin of 25.25 points.

When the Volunteers did miss shots, they crashed the offensive glass, picking up 25 offensive rebounds on 45 missed shots. UF was outrebounded 57-35.

"We just weren't physical enough," Butler said. "That was disappointing, because that was a majority of what we spent our time preparing for was how physical Tennessee plays. We knew if we didn't initiate the contact and didn't do a good job of boxing out early that we would have a result like we did."

When the Gators did score, the Volunteers quickly brought the ball down the floor, finding easy opportunities in transition. Butler often found herself crying out "Shooter!" moments before a Tennessee player would knock down an open 3-pointer. The Volunteers connected on 9 of 22 from behind the arc.

"That's what great teams do. When you score on them, they answer," Butler said. "I thought we did a poor job of transition defense as well, which hinges a lot on communication. We knew it was going to be difficult to communicate in here, because it is such a tough place to play."

Brooks, who grew up in nearby Jackson, Tenn., had another breakout performance in her home state. The junior has scored 52 points in her two games at Thompson-Boling Arena.

"I love performing in front of a lot of people, showing what I can do," Brooks said. "When I play here, I try to give it my all, because I don't get to come to this state very often."

Five Tennessee players were recognized before the game as part of the team's Senior Night. In just 22 minutes of action, forward Candace Parker, who has chosen to forgo her last season of eligibility, had 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting and added six rebounds and four assists in her final game at Thompson-Boling.

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"Certainly she'll have a great professional career," Butler said. "We are very pleased that she's chosen to start that career."

UF led for a total of 16 seconds Thursday night after forward Marshae Dotson scored the first points of the game on a layup. After trailing 9-6 at the 15:27 mark, the Gators would let the Volunteers go on a 30-9 run to open up the lead to 24 points with less than three minutes remaining in the first half.

Butler wanted her team to look at this as a game of segments - dividing each half into five periods divided by media timeouts. Of those 10 segments, UF outscored Tennessee during only three, with two coming in the second half after the outcome was sealed.

"This was a special night here at Tennessee, and this is a special place," Butler said. "(Tennessee has) a fantastic group of seniors that deserved all those folks to be in the stands.

"This is a tough environment to overcome, and you're certainly not going to beat a good team like Tennessee if you don't rebound."

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