GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Two Lady Vols stepped to the free throw line Sunday afternoon and did enough for Tennessee to sidestep an upset.
UT’s salvation was Florida’s lament after the Lady Vols’ 78-75 SEC women’s basketball overtime victory.
With the noise from 2,609 screaming fans at the O’Connell Center ringing in her ears, UT’s Bashaara Graves hit the second of two free throws with 13 seconds left in regulation to tie the score at 70.
In the extra session, Kamiko Williams hit one of two attempts with 24.3 seconds remaining.
Graves, who finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds, closed out the scoring with two more with 8.4 seconds left.
Florida’s Kayla Lewis, a 31.3 percent shooter from long range, missed a 3-pointer with a second left.
“I keep saying she’s our workhorse,” UT coach Holly Warlick said of Graves. “She hit big free throws at the end. She hit tough free throws.”
Since Williams’ free throw turned out to be the game-winner, Florida coach Amanda Butler second-guessed herself for intentionally fouling the senior guard.
“It was one of those calculated risk things,” Butler said. “It was a bad decision, even though she only hit one.”
“… If I had to do it over again, I would’ve trusted our defense.”
Instead, the Gators were left to rely on their free-throw shooting. Christin Mercer missed two with 8.9 seconds left in overtime, the final two attempts of Florida’s 46.7 percent free throw shooting (6 for 13).
The relative serenity of the foul line belied the ferocity of the game.
Meighan Simmons scored a game-high 27 points for No. 9 Tennessee (13-3, 4-0 SEC). Along with Graves, three other Lady Vols scored in double figures. Ariel Massengale scored 12 and Isabelle Harrison had 10.
“We played Tennessee basketball,” Simmons said. “We continued to fight.”
Well, she had the last part right.
The Lady Vols and Gators both wore “We Back Pat” warm-up shirts to begin the SEC’s week-long initiative to bring awareness to Tennessee head coach emeritus Pat Summitt’s foundation, which raises funds to fight Alzheimer’s disease.
The Lady Vols’ support of Summitt’s basketball values, not to mention Warlick’s, wasn’t always as apparent. Florida (13-5, 2-2) had a lot to do with it.
Guard Jaterra Bonds led three double-figure scorers with 18 points. Leading scorer and rebounder Jennifer George left late in the first half after re-injuring her right shoulder, but the Gators still outrebounded UT, 48-41.
“We’re not a one-woman team,” Butler said. “Although Jennifer is one of the best players in the league, I think we showed our balance is legit.”
Simmons’ 17 first-half points helped cover for the absence of center Isabelle Harrison, who played just one minute in the first half after picking up two early fouls.
“It’s tough,” Warlick said. “It puts us in a really difficult position when Izzy is out.”
The scoring covered for UT’s shaky defense until the second half. After trailing by as many as nine points, the Gators rallied and regained the lead 66-64 on Bonds’ jumper with 4:27 left.
After UT rallied, Florida struck back to lead 70-69 on freshman January Miller’s jumper with 29 seconds left.
Graves had left the game briefly with 1:53 left after Williams’ shoulder collided with Graves’ neck during a loose-ball scramble, leaving the freshman forward sprawled on the floor.
Graves’ tying free throw resulted from a foul on a driving shot attempt against 6-foot-7 Vicki McIntyre.
“I actually wanted that layup a little more than I wanted the free throw,” Graves said. “I was confident in the second one.”
Williams stopped a driving attempt by Bonds to force overtime. The Lady Vols shot just 2 for 6 in overtime, but held Florida to 2 for 9.
“Had it not been for our D and getting stops when we needed to,” Massengale said, “we would’ve lost that basketball game.”
Dan Fleser covers Tennessee women’s basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/FleserKNS and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/fleser.
Tennessee hadn't won a game this close since a 61-58 victory at Ole Miss on Feb. 11, 2010.