With a second left in the first quarter, Tennessee hoped for a bucket to tie the Gators.
That didn’t happen, and Florida kept its lead. But it was short-lived. The No. 20 Tennessee Volunteers subdued the Gators 79-65 in a Sunday afternoon match that swayed with every play.
The Gators started hot, making back-to-back buckets in the first five minutes. Two jumpers and a free throw from guard Kiara Smith preceded one of guard Lavender Briggs’ signature threes.
Leading 8-4, the Gators then left the Volunteers behind by seven after a steal from guard Nina Rickards led to a second Briggs three. With Tennessee’s offense warming up, a Smith jumper and layup and forward Jordyn Merritt left the Vols down by four.
Briggs then hit her third three before a Smith jumper wrapped up the first. All but one of the quarters’ 21 points were scored by Briggs and Smith.
As quick as the Gators cranked up the heat, they cooled down.
The second began with a Smith layup, but Florida was unheard of until another Smith bucket ended an 8-0 run favoring Tennessee. At this point, Florida made only one of its last eight shots.
The Gators’ offensive drought continued with a missed free throw from guard Danielle Rainey until a Briggs jumper tied the game 27-27. Two Tennessee buckets and a three killed the tie after Briggs missed a free throw.
Two Merritt free throws challenged two Tennessee layups with less than a minute. With three seconds left in the half, a Merrit steal gave Smith possession of the ball, but she was denied a final bucket.
With an ice-cold Florida team, Briggs was the only one bringing life into the game for the first four minutes. A Merrit jumper subdued Briggs’ domination until another Briggs bucket.
Following a Smith jumper, the rest of the Gators bounced back to life. They energized their defense and stepped up to chomp away at Tennessee's lead.
Guard Danielle Rainey made a bucket that brought the game to 11 points. Two Smith free throws and a fourth Briggs three followed a layup and free throw from forward Floor Toonders.
The fifth and final Briggs three cuts the Vols’ advantage to four points. Smith missed her second bucket at the buzzer in the third, capping the score at 58-54.
The Gators remained aggressive with Tennessee from the start of the fourth. For about three minutes, Florida didn’t allow the Vols buckets, instead chomping its deficit down to one after a Smith layup and Rainey three.
But Florida was soon caught slipping. The Gators permitted the Vols four buckets until a three from quiet guard Brynn Farrell. Another Farrell three left the Gators simmering in Tennessee's last-minute, nine-point campaign.
And just like that, Florida’s dreams of a first ranked win went up in smoke.
Assistant head coach Kelly Rae Finley said she was satisfied with her team’s ability to compete Sunday. While the team needs to rebound the ball better, she said there were improvements from Thursday’s Missouri game.
To Finley, the team needs to get more consistent across the board.
“Lav [Briggs] and Kiki [Smith] have real consistent preparation,” she said. “We’re looking for more production from everyone else.”
In a scorecard littered with zeros, Briggs and Smith proved to be outliers for Florida, scoring 23 points each. The duo made slightly more than 70% of the Gators’ points Sunday.
The Gators will go head-to-head against the LSU Tigers Feb. 11. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. and will stream on the SEC Network+.
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