KNOXVILLE — Up by just six points at halftime against Florida, Tennessee seemed bound for another one of the close calls that have become the norm in Southeastern Conference women’s basketball.
Coach Pat Summitt preached once again to the fifth-ranked Lady Vols about the importance of playing with full effort for 40 minutes.
“I was not happy,” Summitt said. “I told them, ‘We’re not going anywhere in the tournament unless we invest in being a 40-minute team.’ There’s a reason that we have eight championships. We have to change our level of commitment.”
The Lady Vols listened, shooting 64.5 percent and limiting the Gators to 21.2 percent as they beat Florida 83-44 on Sunday.
Nearly half of all conference games played this season have been decided by single digits, and SEC-leading Tennessee (23-2, 11-1) has played its part.
The Lady Vols needed a reverse layup by Angie Bjorklund with 2.3 seconds left to pull out a 66-64 win over Florida in Gainesville on Jan. 14. Bjorklund also hit a game-winning 3 in a 61-58 win at Mississippi on Thursday.
Bjorklund still did her part in beating Florida (13-12, 6-6), but this time she helped by scoring 24 points, including six 3-pointers. Kelley Cain added 19 points, Shekinna Stricklen sank 12 and Alicia Manning added 11.
“It feels good,” Bjorklund said. “I think once our team got together at halftime and everyone committed to defense and rebounding, that made a huge difference. We need to keep it like that more often and focus on playing a 40-minute game.”
The teams traded the lead eight times and tied three times in the first half. Stricklen grabbed the ball from Tessah Holt and hit a layup to cap a 10-0 Tennessee run and give the Lady Vols a 31-21 lead with 2:06 in the first half.
Layups by Trumae Lucas and Jennifer George helped Florida trim the margin, and Tennessee led 34-28 at halftime.
“I thought we showed a lot of fight in the first half,” Gators coach Amanda Butler said. “In the second half the fight wasn’t there, the intensity wasn’t there. The things that you have to do to compete with a team like Tennessee, especially on their home court, weren’t there.”
The Lady Vols stopped relying so much on their post game after halftime and found some perimeter shooting that had been missing recently, opening the half on a 12-3 run that included 3s by Bjorklund and Manning.
The Gators could manage only 16 points after the break, going long stretches between each basket, and never made it to the free throw line. Steffi Sorensen led Florida with 12 points.
“This doesn’t count, though,” Summitt said. “It counts when we have 40 minutes of busting it up-and-down the court, defending and rebounding at both ends.”
It was Florida’s second blowout in as many games after the Gators lost 70-30 at home against No. 23 LSU on Thursday. Their road doesn’t get any easier with games left to play against No. 17 Kentucky, No. 19 Georgia and Vanderbilt before the end of February.
“After you’ve had losses like we’ve had, especially back-to-back, you find out who is tough and who is willing to do the dirty work in games,” Sorensen said. “Right now, we have to respond. We can’t just roll over and die and accept these losses.”