Gators claim SEC opener over Bulldogs

Florida guard Cassie Peoples (13) drives against Mississippi State guard Jerica James (21) during the first half of the Gators' 82-72 win at the O'Connell Center on Thursday.

Matt Stamey / Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, January 2, 2014 at 10:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 2, 2014 at 10:55 p.m.

Starting guards Cassie Peoples, Jaterra Bonds and January Miller combined for 53 points as the Florida Gators won their seventh straight game with an 82-72 victory over Mississippi State in the SEC opener for both squads Thursday evening.

UF forced 22 turnovers and recorded 11 steals in the win before an O'Connell Center crowd of 1,224.

“For the guards, we just wanted to get things started on the defensive end,” said Peoples, who led all scorers with 23 points, just one shy of her career-high, while adding four rebounds, four assists and three steals.

“I think we did a really good job of starting off, and that's what really set the tone for us was our defense.”

Bonds, a senior, finished with 18 points while Miller, a sophomore, added 12 points and a career-high 10 rebounds for her first double-double.

Sophomore forward Christin Mercer just missed a double-double with 12 points and nine rebounds as UF improved to 11-3, 1-0 while the Bulldogs slipped to 13-2, 0-1.

“I was really, really proud of the way that we played,” coach Amanda Butler said. “I thought that we had great starts to both halves, and that's very important to our team. For the most part, we played with a lot of composure.”

The Gators led 40-30 at the half and enjoyed their biggest lead of the night at 72-55 with 4:16 left to play, but a flurry of late fouls allowed the Bulldogs to cut the lead to 78-70 with 46.9 seconds remaining before redshirt junior Kayla Lewis and redshirt sophomore Carlie Needles combined to knock down four straight free throws to cement the victory.

“It's absolutely huge,” Butler said. “It is hard to win games in this league, and I don't care who the opponent's name is on the jersey or where you're playing them. You've got to take great pride whenever you beat another SEC team.”

The Bulldogs got 16 points from freshman guard Dominique Dillingham and a double-double from freshman forward Breanna Richardson (12 points, 11 rebounds). But 6-foot-4 junior center Martha Alwal, who came in as their leading scorer (17 ppg.) and rebounder (8.8 rpg.), had only six points and five rebounds as UF won the battle of the boards, 47-43, over the taller Bulldogs, led by the efforts of Miller, Mercer and freshman Ronni Williams (eight rebounds).

Next up, Florida travels to face No. 6 Kentucky on Sunday at 3 p.m.

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