No. 4 Vols escape Gators

Gainesville, FL--011410--Florida's Lonnika Thopmson, left, and Tenneessee's Angie Bjorklund, right, chase down a loose ball during the second half at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center on Thursday, January 14, 2010.--(Aaron E. Daye/The Gainesville Sun)

The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 11:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 11:36 p.m.

Florida works on the same end-of-game play every day at practice, minimizing all chances of error. Everything went perfectly when the play was run in-game Thursday. Everything besides the end result.

Lonnika Thompson missed a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer and the No. 4 Tennessee Volunteers narrowly escaped a thrilling upset bid with a 66-64 victory in front of 4,103 fans at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.

“(Thompson) had a great look at it,” UF Coach Amanda Butler said. “I think everybody in the gym thought we were going to be on ESPN tonight.”

Florida led most of the second half before center Azania Stewart was sent to the bench following her fourth foul with 5:27 remaining. When she returned with 1:30 to play, a 60-52 UF lead had evaporated into a 64-62 deficit. Nine of the 11 Volunteer points during the stretch came in the paint as the visitors picked on freshman Jennifer George.

A Thompson jumper with 29.8 seconds remaining tied the game at 64 before Tennessee’s Angie Bjorklund made the best out of a broken play by nestling in a reverse layup to take the lead with 2.3 seconds left.

Florida’s Sharielle Smith inbounded the ball under the the UT hoop and hit Steffi Sorensen at mid-court. Sorensen turned and fired to a wide-open Thompson on the right side, but the senior’s shot was too long by a matter of inches.

The Gators (9-8, 2-2 SEC) battled back after Tennessee opened the game on an 11-3 run. Sorensen gave Florida its only injection of offense early, hitting three consecutive 3-point shots to keep the game from getting out of hand. The senior finished with a team-high 12 points.

After turning the ball over on four of its first six possessions, UF went 13 error-free minutes while forcing 10 Tennessee miscues. The Vols played an uncharacteristically sloppy game on both ends of floor that led to a season-high 25 turnovers and a 16-3 steal differential.

“It was like the ball was a hot potato,” Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt said. “Nobody really wanted to hold on to it very long.”

Tennessee (15-1, 3-0) center Kelley Cain, who scored on Tennessee’s first three possessions, landed awkwardly after battling for a rebound with George late in the first half. A right-hip injury left the 6-foot-6 Cain as a question mark for the second half. After emerging from the locker room two minutes into the second period, Cain managed to play a crucial 10 minutes late in the game and contributed six points in the late run, including the layup that regained the lead for her team with 1:30 to play. The sophomore led all players and matched her career high with 17 points while adding 10 rebounds.

With Cain on the bench, Florida regained the lead when Jordan Jones broke out of a scoreless slump by pouring in eight of the first 11 Florida points after intermission. The UF lead quickly extended to a game-high eight with 7:33 to play before Stewart’s foul opened a hole down low. With UF shorthanded, the Vols finished the final seven minutes of play without a turnover.

“(Stewart) was out for a long time,” Summitt said. “Thank you.”

With the score tied at 64 with 29.8 seconds remaining, Tennessee called a play, ironically named “Gator,” that called for Bjorklund to shoot off of a screen. Florida’s aggressive defense quickly broke the play down and the junior was forced to improvise by scooping up a loose ball and putting in the layup that sent the contingent of Vol fans into a frenzy.

Bjorklund and Glory Johnson, two of Tennessee’s top-three scorers were both held without a point until late in the game. Johnson didn’t score until a free-throw attempt with 14:51 remaining and finished with eight points and 10 rebounds. Bjorklund connected on a pair of late 3s and the game-winner to finish with eight points.

The Gators connected on 23-of-60 field goals (38.3 percent), but made up for it with 9-of-26 (34.6) shooting from long range. UF was out-rebounded 46-24 and was out-scored in the paint 32-20. Despite a major size disadvantage, Florida did not allow a Tennessee block, while swatting three Vols shots.

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