Women's college basketball: Rikea Jackson, Tennessee too much for Gators in SEC opener

Ainslie Lee
The Gainesville Sun

The Florida Gators women's basketball team didn't draw an easy opponent to open Southeastern Conference play.

The Tennessee Lady Vols visited Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center on Thursday night. Historically, Florida hasn't had much luck against Tennessee when it comes to women's basketball.

Coming into Thursday's matchup, the Lady Vols held a 54-5 advantage. And despite a hot start from the home team, Florida would see the series' record become even more lopsided as Tennessee (9-6, 1-0 SEC) went on to beat the Gators 77-67 behind senior Rikea Jackson's floor-leading 28 points.

"This is a really good win for us. It was tough win to get. Obviously Florida is tough and they're aggressive and they battle," Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper said. "We knew it was going to be a 40-minute game ... We're excited to be 1-0 in the league."

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Florida fell to 11-3 overall after losing its SEC opener.

Here are takeaways from the Gators' first conference loss of the season.

Gators jump out to quick start

Florida came into its matchup with Tennessee ready to play.

After the Lady Vols won the tipoff, the Gators immediately forced a turnover and converted on the other end of the floor. As miniscule as it seemed then, it would end up being the theme of the opening frame.

Tennessee committed 10 turnovers in the first quarter en route to a 23-turnover night, which was the second most committed by the Lady Vols all season. Florida would go on to score 10 points off turnovers in the first quarter, which paced the Gators to a 15-14 lead into the second frame.

"We just talked about being physical from the start," said Florida sophomore Alberte Rimdal, who led the Gators' scoring efforts with 21. "We play a lot better when we have energy and confidence ... I felt that from the beginning. We got some stops and we gave each other confidence. It was just a really good feeling and a nice start."

Meanwhile, come the second quarter, Tennessee would begin to find its bearing as it limited its turnovers to four, while outscoring Florida 22-16, which was the largest margin of any quarter.

"After that first quarter, I thought we settled in a little bit better," Harper said. "We took care of the ball much better in the second quarter and were able to get some good looks there."

Rickea Jackson heats up, proves too much for Florida

While Tennessee began to find its groove in the second quarter, Jackson did too.

The Gators were able to hold Jackson to just two points in the opening quarter. But that wouldn't remain the case as the Detroit native began to have her way with the Florida defense down the stretch.

Jackson put up 11 in the second quarter, followed by a nine-point effort in the third and six points in the final quarter.

When all was said and done, Jackson had a season-high 28 points, including and 8-for-9 performance from the free-throw line.

"Rickea Jackson is a pro," Finley said. "Rickea had one of her best games of the season. She's been in and out of their lineup. And hats off to her, hats off to them and their team."

Gators don't go down quietly

Heading into the final quarter, Florida trailed Tennessee 56-46.

The Gators would find themselves down by 12 in the early minutes of the fourth. But instead of folding, Florida made a final comeback bid that would trim the lead to as few as five as Rimdal found her footing and scored on a long jumper, followed by a three-point ball.

Florida senior KK Deans would chip in a few clutch points scoring on a pair of layups, a free throw and a big three-pointer to keep the Gators in the game.

"I think KK's three that she took late, I would take it again," Finley said. "We executed fairly well. It's just a matter of a couple of those shots going down late ... a couple of bobbled passes, late-game executions and things like that. But overall, I'm not too sure I would change much."

The Gators held the Lady Vols to five field goals down the stretch, but allowed Tennessee to make trips to the foul line, where it put up an additional 11 points in the fourth quarter to polish off the win.

Looking ahead

Despite the loss, Finley and the Gators are encouraged.

"It wasn't the result we wanted tonight, right? We want to win. We compete as a team and we believe that we can do hard things," Finley said. "Tennessee was picked to finish second in the conference for a reason. And we feel like we can compete with them. And I feel like everyone saw that tonight."

The Gators are set to continue conference play as they visit the Texas A&M Aggies (5-6, 0-1 SEC) on Sunday for a 2 p.m. tipoff.