Fresh off jump into the top 25, Florida women's basketball hits the road for two games

Alan Festo
Gator Sports
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The Florida women’s basketball team finds itself in unfamiliar territory following upset victories last week over then-No. 7 Tennessee and No. 11 Georgia.

The Gators (17-6, 7-3 SEC) entered the top 25 on Monday for the first time since December 2016 and currently sit at No. 19 in the AP Poll and No. 23 in the USA Today Coaches Poll.

“I think it’s a big deal for our university and for our program as a whole,” interim head coach Kelly Rae Finley said of the rankings. “Though it’s not going to change how we prepare, how we do things, how we think about ourselves.

“It is fun to see our efforts be celebrated and recognized because not every team has the opportunity to do that.”

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The Gators are one of just seven teams in the nation to have defeated at least five top 25 teams. They will have little time to celebrate their success, however, as they hit the road for games against SEC foes Mississippi State (14-7, 5-4) on Thursday and Auburn (9-12, 1-9) on Monday.

Florida Gators interim women's basketball head coach Kelly Rae Finley talks to her team after a loss to No. 1 South Carolina on Jan. 30 in Gainesville. The Gators have since won two straight and travel to Starkville on Thursday to take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

Anastasia Hayes leads Bulldogs' offense

The Bulldogs, winners of three straight, are led by senior guard Anastasia Hayes, who averages 18.7 points per game and is hitting over 50% from the field in SEC play.

The Gators will likely need another strong defensive performance to contain Hayes and her teammates, who rank third in the SEC in scoring at 72.4 points per game.

“I think our defense has been much improved,” Finley said. That’s something that we’ve focused on a lot. We knew we were going to focus on that coming into the season and I’m pleased with where it’s at.”

If Florida finds itself in a back-and-forth game, however, the Gators have proven more than capable of scoring points when needed.

“We feel we’re talented and we can show a lot of different looks. That’s not something a lot teams can do,” Finley said. “We can play a lot of different styles of basketball.”

Coach Kelly Rae Finley talks with guard Nina Rickards (15) during a game against No. 1 South Carolina on Jan. 30 in Gainesville.

SEC Player of the Week Kiki Smith

Reigning SEC Player of the Week Kiki Smith (14.9 ppg) will again lead the Gators' attack, along with Zippy Broughton (8.5 ppg) and Jordyn Merritt (10.8 ppg). Junior guard Nina Rickards has provided Florida with a strong fourth scoring option as of late, piling up 16 points and eight rebounds against Tennessee and 10 points and nine rebounds against Georgia.

"Nina is someone who is always willing to do what the team needs in order for us to find success," Finley said. "She is incredibly selfless in that way.”

Following Thursday’s game against the Bulldogs, the Gators will hit the road again on Valentine’s Day for a second date with the Auburn Tigers (9-12, 1-9 SEC).

Florida defeated Auburn 68-63 in Gainesville behind a strong outing on the free-throw line. The Gators hit 20 of 23, including a perfect 8 for 8 from Merritt. Smith hit 7 of 10 from the line and scored a team-high 19 points.

The Gators will again have to contend with guard Aicha Coulibaly, who had a game-high 24 points and eight rebounds in the first meeting. The sophomore leads the Tigers in scoring (18.5 ppg) rebounding (7.8) and steals (2.2).

Auburn junior guard Honesty Scott-Grayson is second on the team in scoring, averaging 12 points and 5.5 rebounds a contest.

Finley knows the Gators must not overlook the Tigers, whose lone SEC win came against then-No. 4 Tennessee on Jan. 27.

“I actually think this is going to be the toughest stretch of our season,” Finley said.

THURSDAY'S GAME

Who: No. 23 Florida (17-6) at Mississippi State (14-7)

When: 6:30 p.m. 

TV/Radio: SEC Network+/98.1 FM, AM-850

Note: Mississippi State leads the all-time series 27-24

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