There's maybe one venue in women's college basketball more vaunted than Thompson-Boling Arena, which Tennessee fans pack to see their beloved Vols, the SEC's gold standard in the sport, devour visiting team after visiting team. It should be no surprise that Florida's oft-lowly program owned one win over Tennessee in Knoxville entering 2015-16.
After a shocking 74-66 Florida win on Rocky Top on Thursdy, make that two.
Eleanna Christinaki had 18 points, eight assists, and six rebounds, and Carlie Needles scored all 15 of her points on five crucial threes as the Gators rebounded from a double-digit deficit in the first quarter for just their fourth win over the Vols ever.
Florida pulled this off without head coach Amanda Butler, who left the team on Wednesday to deal with a family emergency. "This is about we," Butler told her players and assistants, including Shimmy Gray-Miller, who served as Florida's acting coach on the night. "This is not about me."
The Gators played like it. After Florida's 5-0 bolt from the gates in the first quarter, Tennessee answered with a haymaker of a 20-4 run that could have knocked out a lesser team, and punctuated a dominant first quarter with a three seconds before the buzzer to take a 25-16 lead into the second frame. The Vols wouldn't win any of the other three periods, with Florida swinging the game in its favor for good in a second half in which the Gators outscored the Vols by 16 and by eight points in both the third and fourth quarters.
Christinaki, the Greek dynamo who has been a revelation in her freshman season for Florida, deserves much of the credit for that, as she matched and exceeded Tennessee's intensity all night. But Florida's bigs played admirably against a rugged Tennessee frontcourt (Bashaara Graves had 19 rebounds, but just seven points on 2-for-13 shooting) despite extraordinary foul trouble — Ronni Williams, Haley Lorenzen, and Tyshara Fleming combined for 14 personal fouls, forcing little-used Viktoria Dimaitje into action for stretches of this one — and the Gators largely bottled up Diamond DeShields, one of the nation's most talented players, forcing her to earn her 16 points with 21 shots.
Florida also compensated for 24 turnovers and a 5-for-10 night at the free throw line with white-hot shooting: Needles went 5-for-8 from three, and the Gators made nine of 18 treys as a team, far outpacing the much colder Vols, who went 4-for-22.
The win could scarcely be more precious for Florida, which now owns just four wins over the Vols in 52 all-time meetings, and only two wins in 24 tries in Knoxville. It may not be the best win this program has claimed in a regular season game, but it's certainly in the conversation, and with the paucity of postseason wins to supplement this list, it's quite possibly one of the 10 best wins by Florida's women's basketball team in its history.
After rallying to make a lopsided loss to Mississippi State a close one at home on Sunday, and without Butler to exhort them from the sideline, it would have been easy to forgive the Gators for a no-show on Rocky Top.
Instead, Florida did the unforgettable.