Courtesy / UT Athletics
Box Score KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee fended off a scrappy Florida team to extend its win streak to six games, taking an 88-81 victory over the Gators in Food City Center on Thursday.
For the third straight game in SEC play, the Lady Vols overcame a double-digit deficit to claim victory, this time overturning a 12-point UF advantage in the second quarter. The Lady Vols converted on 16 of 18 free-throw tries in the final frame to seal the victory.
Tennessee (10-5, 3-0 SEC) was led by senior Jewel Spear and junior Sara Puckett, who each fired in 20 points. Spear shot 50 percent from the field and 91 percent from the charity stripe on 10 made free throws, while Puckett went 4-of-5 from behind the arc for a season-best four treys. Fifth-year senior Rickea Jackson was also a top producer with 18 points and eight rebounds.
Aliyah Matharu was the high scorer for Florida (9-6, 0-3 SEC) with 23 points. Leilani Correa was also in double digits with 12, and Alberte Rimdal and Zippy Broughton each finished with 11.
The Lady Vols’ first two points came from the free-throw line courtesy of Jasmine Powell at the 9:17 mark. The Gators tied it up on the next play, but a trio of Puckett threes had the Lady Vols ahead 13-6 by the 5:13 mark. The Gators responded with four quick points to ignite an 11-2 run that gave them a 19-15 lead with 1:48 to go in the first. Tamari Key ended the drought for UT with a layup and followed it up with a long-range two on the next play to tie the game at 19-all, but Florida got a bucket in before the buzzer to take a 21-19 lead into the second quarter.
A pair of Matharu jumpers set off a 9-0 run that built the Gators’ lead to 30-19 with 7:38 to go in the half. Jackson scored UT’s first points of the quarter 40 seconds later, and the teams traded baskets until a Karoline Striplin three pulled Tennessee within seven by the media timeout at 35-28. Jewel Spear converted on an old-fashioned three-point play following the timeout to trim it to four. Correa buried a jumper on the next play, but Spear scored again to set off an 8-2 run that tied the game at 39-all with 1:05 on the clock. Florida took the lead twice more, but UT answered both times, sending the game into the half with the score knotted up at 43.
The Gators reclaimed the lead on the first play of the second half, but a jumper by Spear at the 6:59 mark put the Lady Vols ahead 47-46. A free throw by Jackson stretched the lead to two, but a three-point play by Laila Reynolds on the next possession pushed UF on top by one. Jillian Hollingshead responded with three points, and Powell followed it up with a jumper to build UT’s lead up to four with four minutes to go in the third. Florida inched within one with 90 seconds on the clock, but a three by Striplin lifted UT’s advantage back to four, and the Lady Vols maintained that through the buzzer, taking a 63-59 lead into the fourth.
Matharu pocketed a jumper on the first play of the final stanza to pull UF within two, but four quick points by Puckett and Spear extended the Lady Vol lead to six. Florida scrapped within three with 8:11 left in the game, but a pair of Kaiya Wynn free throws and another trey by Puckett provided UT a 72-64 lead with 5:39 to go. Broughton cut it back to six on the next play, but Jackson and Spear scored on back-to-back possessions to give UT its largest lead of the game at 76-66 at the 3:42 mark. Correa responded with a trey for UF to cut the deficit to seven, and that’s as close as Florida would get as Tennessee converted on free throws to close out the 88-81 victory.
UP NEXT: Tennessee will hit the road for two games, beginning with a Sunday battle at Texas A&M (13-3, 1-2 SEC). The Lady Vols and Aggies will meet at Reed Arena at 4 p.m. CT (5 ET) in a contest televised by ESPN.
COMEBACK KIDS: Tennessee has come from double digits down to win all three SEC games this season. The Lady Vols trailed Florida by 12, 35-23, with 5:53 remaining in the second quarter before rallying to a 43-all tie by halftime. The Lady Vols previously erased second-quarter deficits of 12 vs. Auburn and 17 vs. Kentucky to win those contests. This time, however, the Lady Vols made up the entire gap by intermission.
SEALING IT AT THE LINE: Tennessee made 26 of 30 free-throw attempts against Florida, the most the Lady Vols have completed from the charity stripe since last season’s contest at Mississippi State. UT went 37 of 44 vs. the Bulldogs in that contest on Feb. 6, 2023. Against the Gators Thursday night, the Big Orange closed out the game by hitting 16 of 18 tries in the fourth quarter and 21 of their 25 opportunities in the second half. UT’s 86.7-percent marksmanship also was a season best.
BIG NIGHT FOR PUCKETT:Sara Puckett co-led Tennessee with a personal SEC high of 20 points, ranking as the second-best scoring output of her career behind a career-topping 24 vs. Memphis on Nov. 13. The junior forward got off to a fast start, dropping a trio of three-pointers against the Gators in the first five minutes of the game that tied her season high of three-balls for an entire contest. She finished with a career-best 4-of-5 night behind the arc and was eight of 12 from the field on the evening. She also matched Rickea Jackson as UT’s leader in rebounds with eight, equaling her season best first recorded vs. Oklahoma on Nov. 25.
SPEAR STRONG AGAIN IN SEC:Jewel Spear tallied 20 points to tie Sara Puckett as Tennessee’s scoring leader vs. UF, marking the first time she has produced back-to-back 20-point efforts as a Lady Vol. She had 21 vs. Kentucky in the previous game. Spear was five of 10 from the field and 10 of 11 from the charity stripe vs. Florida. She also grabbed six rebounds and tied her season high with three assists.
KEY PAINT PRODUCTION:Tamari Key tied her season high with nine points vs. Florida. Key went three for three in the first quarter and finished with six points by the end of the first half, already her second-highest scoring output of the campaign behind a nine-point effort vs. Ohio State on Dec. 3. The 6-foot-6 redshirt senior wound up four of five from the field in 15 minutes of duty vs. the Gators.