GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Angie Bjorklund couldn’t make a shot for most of Thursday night.
Yet Tennessee’s junior guard made the one that mattered most. Her driving reverse layup with 2.3 seconds left was the difference in a 66-64 SEC women’s basketball victory over Florida before a crowd of 4,103 at the O’Connell Center.
The outcome was not safe until a nifty inbounds play by Florida advanced the ball the length of the floor for guard Lonnika Thompson’s potential game-winning 3-pointer, which bounced off the rim.
“I think everybody in the gym thought we were going to be on ESPN by hitting that buzzer beater and pulling the upset off,’’ Florida coach Amanda Butler said.
Florida (9-8, 2-2 SEC) certainly earned its final shot at a celebration. The Gators took the fight to No. 4 Tennessee (15-1, 3-0), which committed a season-high 25 turnovers and trailed by as many as eight points (56-48) with 7:33 left.
Despite deploying a lineup that often had just one 6-footer on the floor, the Gators nearly overcame a 46-24 disparity in rebounding with their quickness and determination.
“I give a lot of credit to Florida,’’ said Bjorklund, who scored her first basket with 8:51 left. “They came out a lot tougher than us. We have to match their intensity. We didn’t.”
Four Gators scored in double figures, led by Steffi Sorensen’s 12 points. She hit four of Florida’s nine 3-pointers.
Like much of the game, Tennessee’s decisive possession was disrupted by Florida’s aggressive defense. The play was designed to go to one of UT’s post players. Instead, the ball ended up in Bjorklund’s hands, and she drove the baseline for the winning shot.
“I’m definitely a shooter,’’ said Bjorklund, who shot 3 for 11 from the floor and matched her season low with eight points. “I don’t shoot too many layups.’’
Desperate times demanded resourceful measures.
“It was one of those situations where the offense breaks down,’’ UT coach Pat Summitt said. “You have to create. That was the most creative shot of the night for her.”
For the first 34-plus minutes, Tennessee’s creativity was counterproductive. The Lady Vols were turning over the ball in about every way imaginable. Stricklen was credited with nine turnovers.
“It was like the ball was a hot potato,’’ Summitt said. “Nobody wanted to hang onto it.
“You have to give Florida credit. I think they made us rush. That disappointed me, but that says something about their team.’’
The finish said something about the Lady Vols, who pulled themselves together and didn’t commit a turnover in the final seven minutes. They began an 18-8 finishing kick with Bjorklund’s second basket — a 3-pointer with 7:22 left.
Cain, who had to be helped off the court shortly before halftime, scored two consecutive baskets, pulling UT to 60-58 with 3:54 left. Another Cain layup gave Tennessee a 64-62 lead with 1:32 left.
“It was difficult,’’ Cain said of returning. “But I knew my team needed me. I knew I’d leave my team hanging if I didn’t and sat out.”
Cain took advantage of the absence of Florida’s 6-foot-4 center Azania Stewart, who was on the bench with four fouls.
“She stayed out a long time; thank you,’’ Summitt said of Stewart. “You have to decide. Do you hold out or gamble. Her being out worked to our advantage.”
Down the stretch, the Lady Vols also benefited from strength & conditioning coach Heather Mason. Cain said that she reminded them during a timeout of their offseason work and the importance of finishing.
The Lady Vols were all ears.
“We had to buckle down,’’ Cain said, “and get our minds right.”