Knoxville, Tenn.--(UTSports) The #11/12 Tennessee Lady Vols (14-4/3-2 SEC) return to league play Thursday night, when Florida (13-5/3-2 SEC) comes to town for a 6:30 p.m. contest at Thompson-Boling Arena.
UT will be trying to win its second-straight conference game and get back on the winning track following an 86-70 setback to #2/2 Notre Dame at the arena on Monday night.
" WE BACK PAT" GAME IS THURSDAY
Not only will the game be a key match-up for UT and UF, it will mark Tennessee's home observance of "We Back Pat" Week.
From January 19-26, SEC member institutions are showing support for The Pat Summitt Foundation during their home basketball games. At every SEC women's game - 19 games in 13 cities - a variety of efforts including promotional public address announcements and video endorsements are being made to help increase awareness of the foundation and its fight against Alzheimer's disease.
UT encourages fans to wear "We Back Pat" shirts in support of Pat Summitt and her battle with Alzheimer's. "We Back Pat" shirts and wrist bands will be available for purchase at the game as well. Doors open at 5:30 on Thursday evening.
"It's a huge support for Alzheimer's and for Pat, and what she's battling, what she stands for and her representation of University of Tennessee women's basketball," head coach Holly Warlick said. "I hope everyone comes out and supports it."
Senior guard Meighan Simmons said it is going to be special to honor her former head coach and the NCAA's all-time victory leader.
"It's going to be a very emotional day," Simmons said. "...I appreciate everything that she's done for me. She helped me become the woman I am today. It's just going to be an inspiring game. It should motivate not only me but the rest of the team to just go out there and play even harder for her."
The game should be equally inspiring for the players and the fans.
"It's inspiring to me - just to have a week where we can sit back and realize what Pat has done for the SEC and for women's basketball, period, is amazing," said sophomore forward Bashaara Graves. "We just want to go out and play tomorrow just for her.
"It's going to be great. It should be a great environment to play in, and we are just supporting Pat the whole week, and the SEC having the "We Back Pat" Week is great."
So is the Taber Spani tradition of hugging coach Summitt before each game that Simmons has carried on this season.
"After I had seen Taber do it, it just reminded me to be grateful to have somebody like that who was before you," Simmons said. "By me hugging her, it just allows me to have a lot of confidence.
"She's still here, even though she's not on the sidelines. I appreciate her coming out and supporting me no matter what. I just love Pat, and it's one of those things where I have to show her that I appreciate her and show her that I really do love and care for her."
Florida enters the contest on a two-game losing skid, but the Gators began the SEC slate 3-0 and stood 14-2 prior to setbacks at #12/13 LSU and at home vs. a desperate Georgia squad on Sunday.
UF, which is carrying only eight on its travel roster due to injury and disciplinary reasons, upset #6/6 Kentucky in Lexington to open league play and will not be intimidated behind Jaterra Bonds, whose 16.7 scoring average leads the Gators. The wily guard had 18 points in both games against UT in 2012-13.
"We know Florida is a good team," Graves said. "They beat Kentucky already, so they are going to come in here with great confidence and it should be a very good game."
Simmons supported her teammate's assessment.
"Florida is a very good team," Simmons said. "They are trying very hard to fight in the SEC. I think that as of right now, we need to go out and play hard. We got some confidence from (first 20 minutes of) the Notre Dame game, but there's still some things we need to work on."
"They're physical," Warlick said. "They're a little bit like us. They get up and down the floor. I think you'll see a battle on the boards and on the defensive end. I think it's going to be a little bit of a chess match. Whoever is smarter, stronger and sticks to the game plan is going to come out with the victory."
NOTRE DAME TAKEAWAY
Despite the loss to the Fighting Irish on Monday night, both players said they found positives they could take away from that game. Most notably, the 12-point lead the team forged in the first half and the way the Lady Vols played during that stint.
"The way we started out, I think we played probably the best basketball we've played all year, and so that is a great sign to show, and that was a light to just see that we can play that well," Graves said. "In the second half, we didn't do what we were supposed to do. Obviously
it was a worse half than the first half, so we have to take back from that, too, and play better defense." Simmons pointed to some things she could have done differently.
"I think it's just a matter of being smart with the ball and making the easier pass, she said. "I know against Notre Dame that there were some passes that I made that were very difficult passes. Some passes got there, and some passes didn't. It's just a matter of taking care of the ball and being patient on the offensive end."
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