DULUTH, Ga. – The leadership of Florida's first-year players in their SEC tournament loss to Tennessee provided hope for a longer stay in the tournament in the future.
Freshman Sydney Moss had a career-high 22 points but Florida's late comeback fell short in the Gators' 82-73 loss to No. 9 Tennessee on Friday in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference tourney.
Freshman Carlie Needles had 12 points — all on 3-pointers. Another first-year player, Christin Mercer, had eight points.
Moss had a steal and basket with 49 seconds remaining to cut Tennessee's lead to 75-69 — the Lady Vols' smallest lead of the half. Tennessee (24-6) answered the challenge to pull out the win.
Florida coach Amanda Butler said she told her players after the game, "We've still got a lot of learning to do, a lot of growing up to do in terms of how to bring your best over and over and over again, possession to possession to possession, half to half."
The Gators (18-14) outscored the Lady Vols 37-35 in the second half but couldn't overcome a slow start.
Tennessee beat Florida 78-75 in overtime in Gainesville on Jan. 13, giving the Gators confidence they could win Friday's rematch.
"We didn't come here to play close or make it respectable or with any other expectation except to win," Butler said.
After Moss opened the game with a driving basket for Florida, Tennessee scored the next 12 points and never lost the lead.
The Lady Vols ran on every opportunity, sometimes forcing Florida to foul. Tennessee outscored Florida 23-6 on free throws.
"Tennessee did a great job of getting themselves to the free-throw line and really capitalized on those opportunities," Butler said.
Meighan Simmons led Tennessee, the three-time defending champion, with 20 points. Tennessee has won 10 straight games in the tournament since its loss to Auburn in the 2009 semifinals.
Holly Warlick, the former longtime assistant to Pat Summitt, wasn't satisfied with her first postseason win as Tennessee's coach.
"I think the first 10 minutes we set the tone and then we just get comfortable," Warlick said. "We get a lead and we get comfortable. We've got to have that killer instinct in us and finish the game the way we start the game."
The Lady Vols took their big lead of 13 points at 17-4 but couldn't put the game away.
"I think on the offensive end we're just talented," said Cierra Burdick, who had 14 points and eight rebounds. "We've got a bunch of people that can score the basketball. ... We've got to continue to pick it up on defense, because offense is not our problem. It's the defensive end."
Ariel Massengale and Simmons each made two free throws in the final 43 seconds. Taber Spani missed a one-and-one free throw with 30 seconds remaining, but Jaterra Bonds missed a layup for Florida.
Spani, who had 13 points, made three free throws in the final 16 seconds.
Bonds had 18 points and Carlie Needles scored 12 on four 3-pointers for Florida.
Moss scored the Gators' first eight points. Florida cut into the Lady Vols' lead when it found more help for Moss — especially from long-range shots. Florida had six 3-pointers in the first half, including three by Needles. A 3-pointer by Lily Svete cut the Lady Vols' lead to 24-22.
Tennessee stretched its advantage to 47-36 at halftime.
Florida got within seven points midway through the second half. Tennessee led 63-56 with 7:23 remaining when Simmons drew her fourth foul on a charge and left the game. The Lady Vols produced an 8-2 run that included two baskets by Burdick, pushing the lead to 71-58.
Simmons returned for the final 2:39 and had a layup with 1:05 remaining after Florida pulled within eight points.
Tennessee won 16 SEC tournaments and eight national championships in 38 seasons with Summitt, who stepped down last April after announcing in 2011 she has early-onset dementia. She did not attend the game.