NCAA Tournament: Florida women come up short against UCF in first round

Graham Hall
Gator Sports
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The short-handed Florida women’s basketball team fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Saturday to No. 7-seed UCF, 69-52, in the Bridgeport region. 

Playing without two of its primary scoring options in guard Kiara "Kiki" Smith and forward Jordyn Merritt, the 10th-seeded Gators (21-11) struggled to generate offense against the Knights. 

Florida, trailing 34-23 at halftime, did cut UCF’s lead to just four on a jumper from Nina Rickards, only for UCF (26-3) to close the third quarter on a 8-0 run of its own to re-take a double-digit advantage. 

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Gators guard Zippy Broughton (4) shoots against UCF Knights forward Masseny Kaba (5) and forward Destiny Thomas (33) in the first half Saturday at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn.

Rickards led Florida with 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting, while Zippy Broughton had an all-around performance, finishing with 12 points, eight rebounds and six assists. The Knights, who will play No. 2-seeded UConn in the second round on the Huskies' home court, were led by a career-high 26 points from Brittney Smith. 

The Gators were 26-0 against UCF in program history prior to Saturday. 

"Obviously it wasn't the outcome that we hoped for. I thought we competed, and I thought we competed well amongst the adversity that we've had to end the season, though we don't do excuses," UF head coach Kelly Rae Finley said. "I'm sad that will be the last time we compete together as a group, but I'm looking forward to our future of Florida women's basketball."

Here are 4 takeaways from Saturday’s contest. 

Jordyn Merritt can’t go

Jordyn Merritt missed the contest with the head injury she suffered March 4 to Ole Miss in the third round of the SEC Tournament. On Monday, Finley described Merritt as “day-to-day”, but Finley didn’t appear overly optimistic the Gators would have Merritt available for Saturday’s game.

Merritt wasn’t out on the court to begin pre-game shootaround, nor was she in the starting line-up come tip-off, putting to rest the question of whether she would make her return for the postseason. Smith was hurt in the SEC Tournament and has not played since. 

Gators head coach Kelly Rae Finley talks with forward Faith Dut (25) from the sideline in the first half against UCF at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn.

Faith Dut exits

UF’s injury woes didn’t end with Merritt’s inactive status. 

Florida starting forward Faith Dut suffered an injury of her own prior to halftime that forced her from the contest. Dut suffered a high-ankle injury with 1:16 remaining in the first half of Florida’s 17-point loss. It was unclear how Dut’s injury occurred, but it was clearly serious enough to put her return into question. During the third quarter, Dut returned to UF’s bench without her right shoe and sporting crutches, officially ending her day. 

She finished the game with four points, including the game’s opening field goal, two rebounds and a block. 

Seeing another valued contributor hit the floor was all too familiar for Florida. 

"It was unfortunate," Finley said of Dut's injury. "But it was typical. I just think that our team is resilient. It was unfortunate, but like I said, we don't make excuses. And we have a talented roster, and we all believe in each other, and that's what got us this far."

UCF Knights forward Brittney Smith (32) shoots against Florida Gators forward Emanuely de Oliveira (11) and guard Jeriah Warren (20) in the second half.

Gators can’t capitalize on rebounding advantage

The absence of Merritt — and later Dut – couldn’t keep the Gators off the glass against UCF.

Florida outrebounded the Knights, 44-35, including a 18-8 differential in offensive rebounds. But Florida couldn’t take advantage of the extra possessions, shooting 30 percent from the field to the Knights’ 45.2 percent. In what would be their final game of the season, the Gators also struggled when it came to ball security, committing 16 turnovers to just six by UCF. 

"In the beginning of the season, we all wanted to be here, and we got here and now know what it feels like," Rickards said. "So next year we're going to build and prepare for that all summer." 

Zippy Broughton returning to UF?

Senior guard Broughton, who transferred to UF following three seasons at Rutgers University, insinuated she will utilize her extra year of eligibility and return to the program for her fifth season of collegiate basketball. 

Broughton discussed her plans as well as her room for growth in the post-game press conference, and it sure sounded as if Broughton plans on coming back to Gainesville for the 2022-23 campaign. 

“So, I know next year I’ll have the point guard spot, and we already keep talking about it, I’m going to be going through a lot of extensive point guard college this summer, being able to lead the team appropriately,” Broughton said. “I know that’s something I struggled with in the first half. I wasn’t able to lead as I felt like I should have, and they couldn’t depend on me, and Nina stepped up big time.” 

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