Slow start dooms Florida women's basketball team against No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer

Florida couldn’t overcome a sluggish first half against the nation’s top-ranked program, falling 62-50 Sunday to the No. 1-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks in the Exactech Arena.

UF went 4 of 30 in the first half on field-goal attempts as USC took a 20-point advantage into the halftime locker room. 

The Gators did attempt to fight back over the second half but ultimately trailed by double-digits the rest of the way as UF saw its five-game win streak snapped. 

Sixth-year guard Kiara "Kiki" Smith, who entered the game ranked No. 16 in the nation with 51 steals, added another takeaway while being one of just two Gators to score in double figures against the Gamecocks. 

UF sophomore guard Zipporah Broughton added 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting in 20 minutes.

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Florida Gators guard Kiara Smith (1) shoots for 3 in the fourth quarter on Sunday afternoon against the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks at the O'Connell Center in Gainesville.[Doug Engle/Ocala Star Banner]

Here are 3 takeaways from Sunday’s contest. 

Gators start ice cold

The Gators trailed 19-3 after the opening 10 minutes of play, and it wasn’t due to a lack of opportunities. Considering how they closed the game, the Gators might have had a chance of upsetting South Carolina  — that is, if it weren’t for the 1-of-19 shooting performance in the first quarter.

The Gamecocks only attempted 11 field goals in the first quarter, but that didn’t stop the visitors from building a double-digit lead in the opening minutes. 

"I think that it felt like there was a lid on the basket there. A lot of those shots maybe we were a little bit more wide-open than we had anticipated," UF interim head coach Kelly Rae Finley said. "But I thought we got good looks. I didn't think our looks were bad looks. They weren't different than anything we've seen all season so far, but our expectation is to execute and knock them down. We knew at some point they would start to fall, which is why I don't think you saw panic, and, you know, you just simply have to start better shooting from the floor to beat a team like that."

It wasn’t just from the field when it came UF struggled.

Florida went just 1 of 4 from the free-throw line in the first quarter, though the Gators eventually settled in at the charity stripe, going 7 of 8 the rest of the way.

"I mean, we were 1 of 19, and if you had told me that we were going to be in a 10-point game down the stretch," said Finley, "I would have told you you were crazy."

2nd half bounce-back

Following a poor-shooting first half, Florida trailed by a sizable margin at the midpoint. 

The Gamecocks had a 33-13 advantage through 20 minutes, putting the Gators in the precarious position of getting run off their home court when the second half commenced. 

But the Gators managed to outscore the Gamecocks 19-15 in the third quarter to trim the deficit.

UF knocked down 9 of 17 shots, including the team’s first make from 3-point range, coming out of the halftime locker room. 

South Carolina guard LeLe Grissett (24) knocks the ball loose from the hands of Florida Gators guard Alberte Rimdal (5) in the first half Sunday afternoon in the O'Connell Center in Gainesville. [Doug Engle/Ocala Star Banner]

In the build-up to the contest, aware the opposition would be heavily favored, Finley discussed the differences between losing and being defeated, saying what mattered most was how Florida responded to the adversity. Considering how the Gators responded after the offensive inefficiency in the first quarter, it's safe to say the team heard Finley's message. 

"I think, when she brought it to our attention yesterday, I think that it stuck with us a lot. I don't think we've really realized there's a difference between losing and being beat," Smith said, "and I think that as a team we understand that we may not win every game, but as long as we play our hardest and, you know, the basketball that we practice 24/7, that we're doing as best as we can." 

Florida forward Jordyn Merritt (12) pressures South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston (4) during the first half on Sunday afternoon. [Doug Engle/Ocala Star Banner]

Smith can’t outduel Boston

Smith was the focal point of Florida’s offensive attack Sunday, scoring a game-high 22 points on 10-of-22 shooting. Smith contributed in multiple facets, too, dishing a pair of assists and hauling in three rebounds while playing the entire contest.

Meanwhile, the Gators struggled in the paint against a South Carolina team led by star forward Aliyah Boston. The SEC’s co-Defensive Player of the Year during the 2020-21 season, Boston did her damage early and often, scoring 13 points and hauling in a season-high 19 rebounds. The Gamecocks hauled in twice as many rebounds as Florida, winning the battle on the glass 56-28, resulting in 12 second-chance points. 

"Aliyah Boston's a very talented player. We came into this game knowing that as long as we can limit her, and our guards can play one-on-one defense," Smith said, "that it was going to be a tough game."