Florida women’s basketball looked to pick up its 800th program win in its Southeastern Conference opener. Missing their leading scorer against a physical opponent, the Gators were in for a fight.
That elusive 800 will have to wait.
The Florida Gators (11-3, 0-1) fell to the Tennessee Lady Volunteers (9-6, 1-0) in their first SEC battle, sans senior guard Leilani Correa. The conference opener saw Rocky Top stay on top 77-67, extending Tennessee’s lead in meetings between the two programs 55-5.
Outside shooting struggles plagued both teams early. Neither team made a 3-pointer in the first quarter, and they entered the locker rooms with one apiece come halftime.
Defensive pressure kept the Gators in the game, even though it only made five baskets on 15 attempts. Ten Tennessee turnovers resulted in 10 points for Florida and a 15-14 lead at the end of the period.
The first half saw a back-and-forth battle with seven lead changes and seven ties. Neither team seemed to hit its shots until Tennessee’s post players found their rhythm.
Senior forward Rickea Jackson scored 11 points in the second quarter, lifting the Vols to a 36-31 lead at halftime. Senior Vols point guard Jordan Horston, Tennessee’s primary ball handler, found success under the basket and opened the third quarter with seven points of her own.
From there, it was bully ball. Tennessee found players on open backdoor looks, where the heights of 6-foot-2-inch Vols Jackson and Horston proved too tall an order for the Gators’ bigs to defend. The Vols scored 46 of their 77 points in the paint.
Tennessee out-rebounded Florida 45 to 27, with nine of those from Jackson. The effort underneath led to 14 offensive rebounds and 16 second-chance points for Tennessee. The Gators only grabbed seven offensive rebounds and turned them into eight points.
Correa, who hasn’t played since Florida’s Dec. 11 win against Miami, was a noticeable absence on the floor. The transfer from St. John’s averages 16 points per game on 47% shooting. The timeline for her return is unknown.
Florida’s only answer for the first three quarters was sophomore guard Alberte Rimdal, who delivered a season-high 21 points on 8-11 shooting. She also tallied a team-high five assists — an offensive effort that kept the Gators in the running as the fourth quarter loomed with a 56-44 Tennessee lead.
Just when the 800th win seemed out of reach, senior guard KK Deans picked up the pace behind Rimdal’s effective third quarter. The West Virginia transfer finished with 16 points, including an emphatic triple to pull the Gators within five.
That five-point gap was as close as Florida came before Tennessee piled on the pressure. A tight defense meant a lack of open looks from beyond the arc. The Gators’ offense shoots 33% from 3-point range this season and only shot 3-12 against the Vols.
Tennessee pulled away with 11 of its 19 total made free throws in the fourth quarter. Free throws helped the Vols to 21 fourth-quarter points, sending the Gators packing, 77-67.
Jackson, a preseason Media All-SEC First Team selection, posted a game-high 28 points. Florida Head Coach Kelly Rae Finley said the performance was expected from key players like her and Hortston.
Still, Finley praised the Gators’ defensive effort, which forced 23 turnovers. Despite strong showings from Jackson and Horston, Finley hailed her team’s performance as the best defensive showing of the year.
“Tennessee was picked to finish second in the conference for a reason,” Finley said. “We can compete with them, and everybody saw that tonight.”
As the Gators continue conference play, Finley said physicality of the SEC will continue to be a factor. Tennessee’s toughness proved a strong litmus test for the rest of the season, she said. Finley’s confident her team can withstand the challenges its schedule presents.
“Tonight was an extremely physical game,” Finley said. “I was pleased with how we played through it.”
Florida will face the Texas A&M Aggies at 2 p.m. Jan. 1 in College Station. The game will be streamed on SEC Network.
Contact Heather at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @hmb_1013.
Heather Bushman is a fourth-year journalism and political science student and the enterprise elections reporter. She previously wrote and edited for the Avenue desk and reported for WUFT News. You can usually find her writing, listening to music or writing about listening to music. Ask her about synesthesia or her album tier list sometime.