Simmons scored 21 points and shot 5 of 10 from 3-point range Thursday as No. 11 Tennessee trounced Florida 89-69 to hand the Gators their third consecutive loss. After shooting 2 of 9 in the first half, Simmons was 4 of 4 with three 3-pointers in the second half.
Before the game, the Pat Summitt Foundation received three checks totaling $30,000 in honor of the SEC’s “We Back Pat” Week, an initiative focused on recognizing the foundation’s fight against Alzheimer’s disease. Summitt watched the game from her usual front-row seat across the court from the Lady Vols’ bench and received flower bouquets from Tennessee coach Holly Warlick and Florida coach Amanda Butler. During a second-half timeout, Summitt received a standing ovation as the crowd chanted “We Back Pat.”
“There was some extra oomph to the game, knowing that today was Pat’s day,” said Simmons, who played for Summitt during her freshman and sophomore seasons. “I think that was the mentality for a lot of us. We just played hard. We knew if we were going to go out there and play, we had to play for her on her special day.”
Summitt led Tennessee to eight national titles and 1,098 victories before stepping down as the Lady Vols’ coach in April 2012, one year after announcing she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. Although she remains on Tennessee’s staff as head coach emeritus, Summitt now devotes much of her time to her foundation.
The Lady Vols (15-4, 4-2 SEC) responded to the pregame festivities by delivering one of their most complete performances of the season. They even withstood an injury to starting point guard Ariel Massengale, who didn’t return to the game after getting hit in the face while making a steal late in the first half. Warlick said Massengale was undergoing evaluation after the game.
“My first thought was it was a concussion, but at this point, I don’t think it is,” Warlick said.
Tennessee managed to thrive even without Massengale. The Lady Vols shot 10 of 21 from 3-point range and dished out 27 assists in a game that could provide them a confidence boost heading into Sunday’s game at No. 17 Texas A&M.
“I actually talked to Ariel at halftime and I just told her we were going to hold it down for her, we were going to take care of business, we were going to get it done for her,” said Andraya Carter, who had 14 points and a career-high eight assists. “She’s the leader of this team. She’s what (assistant coach) Dean (Lockwood) would say is the head of the snake. We had to have her back. She always has our back in tough games. She’s always the one pulling us together.”
Bashaara Graves added 17 points and eight rebounds for Tennessee. Jasmine Jones had 13 points and Isabelle Harrison added 12 for Tennessee.
Kayla Lewis scored 14 points, Ronni Williams had 12 and Jaterra Bonds and Antoinette Bannister each added 10 for Florida (13-6, 3-3).
Tennessee owned a major size advantage over Florida, but it was the Lady Vols’ advantage from the perimeter that made the difference in this game. While Tennessee made nearly half its 3-point attempts, Florida was 5 of 20 from beyond the arc. The Gators missed all eight of their 3-point shots in the first half.
“We’ve got to shoot the ball better,” Butler said. “We’ve got great shooters on this team.”
Tennessee never trailed. Graves, who had scored in double figures just once in the six games leading up to this one, had nine points in the first six minutes Thursday to help Tennessee seize control of the game. Graves ended up shooting 7 of 8.
“I think confidence-wise it will help me,” Graves said. “I’ve just got to keep being consistent with that and keep playing my game.”
Tennessee led 40-27 at halftime and extended its lead to 19 early in the second half. Florida cut the margin to 56-48 on two Williams free throws with 11:20 remaining, but that’s as close as Florida would get.