BASKETBALL

Women's basketball: Florida avoids third quarter collapse, beats Prairie View A&M

Ainslie Lee
The Gainesville Sun

The Florida women's basketball team returned to its home floor Wednesday night and posted a 68-53 victory over Prairie View A&M.

The Gators (7-1) spent a long week in St. Petersburg at the St. Pete Showcase, where they collected a pair of wins, including a dramatic 77-73 overtime decision over Houston on Saturday.

"It was a really long stretch for us," Florida head coach Kelly Rae Finley said. "Back-to-back weeks of three games ... I think it was great to have Sunday off. Everybody kinda needed that."

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Here are takeaways from the win over the Panthers (3-4) at Exactech Arena on Wednesday night.

Gators get out to hot shooting start

Florida senior Nina Rickards will be the first to say the Gators don't always start the way they want.

"We emphasized having a great start (tonight) because we usually start a little slow," Rickards said.

And that emphasis immediately paid off as Florida built a sizeable lead that stretched to as many 13 points midway through the first quarter.

The Gators' hot start came thanks to a strong shooting performance from beyond the arc as Florida connected on four three-point shots. Florida sophomore Alberte Rimdal dropped a pair of long balls while Rickards and senior KK Deans each tallied one.

The Gators finished 7-for-24 from deep, with Deans leading the charge with three made shots.

Florida finished the first half having shot 48.4% from the field, taking a 40-27 lead into intermission.

Kennedy Paul helps the Panthers close in

Trailing by 13 points to open the third quarter, Prairie View A&M knew it needed to find a spark.

That spark came in the form of senior Kennedy Paul, who quickly got hot from the field. Paul went on to connect on three three-pointers in the span of two minutes, which helped the Panthers tighten the gap to 44-41 with 5:10 to play in the third period.

"We didn't make an adjustment as quickly as we needed to," Finley said of Florida's third-quarter collapse. "I think our team has great ownership ... We just had a better awareness of where (Paul) was after that little spurt right there."

Paul led the Panthers' scoring efforts with 20 points, while graduate student Tamiracle Taylor added 17.

Florida looks to Rickards when adversity strikes

After stopping the bleeding that Paul caused, the Gators knew they needed to add some insurance points down the stretch. And Finley knew just what Florida needed to do that.

"Get Nina Rickards the ball and get her to the basket," Finley said. "Nina is a senior. She's played a lot of minutes on that floor. She needs to be comfortable making plays in big-time moments. And we're comfortable with her in those situations."

Rickards and Deans both led the Gators' scoring efforts Wednesday night with 16 points apiece.

However, it was Rickards' seven points in the final period that helped Florida distance itself from Prairie View A&M for good.

"It just pushes me and gives me confidence knowing that Kelly has my back and that she's 10 toes down for me and all my teammates," Rickards said.

Turnovers still spelling trouble for the Gators

In Florida's tight contest with Houston over the weekend, the Gators committed a season-high 30 turnovers.

And Wednesday night's performance against the Panthers saw more struggles with ball security as Florida coughed up possession 22 times − the second most of any game this season.

"Some of it's timing, some of it's how we move together," Finley said. "I didn't think we moved exceptionally well together tonight in moments. When we had to, we did. But we were a little bit more stagnant than we have been in the past."

Prairie View A&M went on to score 19 points off Florida's turnovers, while the Gators scored just five points off the Panthers' 12 turnovers.

Florida's Jordyn Merritt taking time away from program

Florida junior Jordyn Merritt wasn't available for the Gators' matchup Wednesday night.

"First and foremost, we adore and love Jordyn as a person," Finley said when asked about Merritt's absence. "She has currently stepped away for a leave of absence for personal reasons. And we as a program ask that you respect her privacy and her space. But know that she is very, very loved and cared for."

Merritt had appeared in all seven of Florida's games coming into Wednesday night, averaging 9.9 points per game and 6.3 rebounds per game.