3 takeaways from Florida's one-point victory over Vanderbilt at SEC women's tournament
The Gators trailed for much of the afternoon, but when it mattered most — the final seconds — the outcome had turned in UF’s favor.
The Florida women's basketball team, fresh off a 20-win regular season, avoided its fourth consecutive loss, defeating No. 13 seed Vanderbilt, 53-52, Thursday in the second round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament on a pair of successful free throws from Nina Rickards with less than nine seconds remaining.
Rickards finished with a team-high 15 points for the Gators, who trailed by double digits early in the first quarter.
Kiki Smith leaves with injury
Although UF avoided another loss on the court, the Gators may have lost senior guard Kiara “Kiki” Smith.
With 4:16 left in the fourth quarter, Smith exited the game after suffering a potentially serious injury to her right knee. Smith appeared unable to put weight on her leg and had to be helped to the locker room by UF’s training staff as Bridgestone Arena fell silent.
Following the contest, Finley was overcome with emotion regarding Smith's injury.
"She sacrificed a lot coming back this year to help us write the story of how the Gators became great," Finley said, choking back tears. "And for that — she didn't have to do that. But she did because she is really selfless."
Prior to exiting, Smith, the team’s leader in multiple statistical categories, had seven points on 3-of-13 shooting to go along with five rebounds.
The Gators didn’t fold in Smith’s absence, cutting the deficit to 48-47 on a jumper by Zipporah Broughton, who had six of UF’s final eight points. Vanderbilt would make it 50-47 on a lay-in by Sacha Washington, though Broughton would hit again to get back within a point. Vandy would go 2-for-4 from the free throw line down the stretch, and the Gators would get stops when they needed it before Rickards’ free throws put Florida in front.
“It was for Kiki,” Broughton said. “We just knew we had to have her back someway, somehow.”
Here are 3 takeaways from Thursday’s contest.
Gators rally again and again
It was a game of swings throughout the afternoon.
The Commodores scored the first 12 points of the game, 10 of which came off Florida turnovers. But the Gators regained their composure and ended the first period on a 12-4 run to cut Vanderbilt’s double-digit lead to four points.
UF would tie the score at 18 apiece, only for the Commodores to close the half on a 13-4 run. Vanderbilt’s lead would grow to 14 in the third quarter, though Broughton’s three-pointer with 15 seconds left until the final period cut UF’s deficit to a more manageable 11 points.
In another double-digit hole — and without its leader — Florida didn’t fold, and the Gators took their first lead of the game with just 8.2 seconds left in regulation.
Though UF wasn't elated – not after what happened to Smith.
"I don't think we've had a chance to celebrate the win yet," Broughton said, "and I honestly don't know if that will come."
Her teammate concurred.
"I don't think I'm going to get to enjoy that, when as of now I'm more concerned with my teammate and her health and safety," Rickards said.
Florida avenges defeat
It may have been consistently in doubt, but the Gators got revenge from just eight days ago, the Feb. 24 loss to Vanderbilt in Nashville. In the first matchup, Smith led the Gators with 18 points, seven rebounds and six assists, while Broughton and Rickards also finished in double figures.
Despite getting the desirable outcome, the ‘Dores hit just 2-of-11 three-pointers. They were more effective from outside Thursday, hitting 5-of-19 from beyond the arc. The Gators went just 3-of-14 from long-range, leading Finley to praise Vanderbilt's defensive effort and gameplan.
"Their defenses are tremendous. Their zone is extremely active," she said. "And they build a wall to keep you out of the paint."
Turnovers hurt UF early
Florida coughed it up a whopping 21 times against the Commodores, nine of which came in the first 10 minutes of play.
UF was much better to end each half, committing just four turnovers in the second quarter and two giveaways in the fourth.