Florida women's basketball returns to win column, defeating Vanderbilt 73-55

Ainslie Lee
The Gainesville Sun

Sunday afternoon was a day of returns for the Florida Gators' women's basketball team as it hosted the Vanderbilt Commodores (9-12, 0-7 SEC) at Exactech Arena for a SEC matinee matchup.

Not only did the Gators (13-7, 2-5 SEC) return to the win column after a 73-55 win, snapping a four-game skid, but Sunday's matchup also marked the return of Florida junior Jordyn Merritt, who hadn't seen the floor since late November after stepping away from basketball for personal reasons.

The legacy of the late Pat Summitt also returned to the O'Connell Center as the Gators honored the basketball pioneer in this year's "We Back Pat" game, which is a SEC-wide initiative bringing awareness to the Pat Summitt Foundation's battle against Alzheimer's disease, which ultimately led to Summitt's premature retirement from coaching women's basketball at the University of Tennessee, where she compiled 1,098 wins.

"She's a pioneer for women's basketball," Florida head coach Kelly Rae Finley said of honoring Summitt. "To be able to support Alzheimer's and support her foundation is very important."

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Here are takeaways from Florida's conference win.

Florida flexes diverse skillset

The three ball, which as been a staple for Florida's offense all season, just wasn't falling Sunday afternoon.

The Gators made just a pair of three pointers against the Commodores, with both coming from the hands of sophomore Alberte Rimdal. Florida's two three-pointers against Vanderbilt ties for the fewest made in a game this season.

Florida Gators forward Jordyn Merritt (12) attempts a three point shot during the second half against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Billy Donovan Court at Exactech Arena in Gainesville, FL on Sunday, January 22, 2023. [Matt Pendleton/Gainesville Sun]

Fortunately, the Gators' struggles from beyond the arc didn't hinder them too much as they were able to see four players finish in double digits.

"We have great shooters," Finley said. "With the diversity of skillsets that we have, we were able to go inside a lot."

Florida was led by senior Nina Rickards, who tallied 15 points. Meanwhile, Rimdal (14), junior Ra Shaya Kyle (13) and senior Leilani Correa (10) also made scoring contributions for the Gators.

The Gators also finished with 16 assists, which is the most they've tallied since Jan. 18 against Georgia.

"It's feel good basketball when everyone gets a touch," said Finley. "We had a lot of confidence and trust in each other and that really showed on the court."

Gators pass Cynthia Jordan's test

Florida assistant coach Cynthia Jordan tells the team and staff that they're going to get tested on the same test until they pass it.

Throughout the season, the Gators have struggled to close out games. In that same matchup against Georgia in early January, Florida coughed up a lead that it had all game before falling to the Bulldogs 82-77.

And though the Gators had a sizeable lead, when the Commodores went on a 10-point run in the fourth quarter, there was a feeling of familiarity. Fortunately for the Gators, a media timeout allowed Florida to regroup.

"We huddled and we said this is usually the issue for us," said Rickards. "Today's the day we have an opportunity to change it and we just stayed together, locked in, got the job done and won the game."

Florida went on to outscore Vanderbilt 19-18 in the final frame.

"I saw a different look in our eye," Finley said of avoiding a fourth-quarter collapse. "We thought about going there for a half a second. And then we remembered that's not who we are and that's not what we want to do."

Jordyn Merritt returns

Coming into Sunday's matchup, Merritt hadn't seen the floor since Nov. 26, when she helped the Gators top Houston.

Merritt had been away from basketball for personal reasons ever since. But she returned to action against the Commodores.

"We were very excited," Rickards said. "Jordyn's been around in practice and warmups and stuff, so just to have her actually on the court during the game, it's just a great feeling. She's our sister... Just seeing her happy and giving it her all to help us win, it means a lot."

Merritt played just under 13 minutes Sunday in an effort that saw her tally four rebounds, four points and a pair of blocks.

Last season, Merritt averaged 10.1 points per game and was Florida's second-leading three-point shooter with 31 makes on the year after making 19 starts.

"Jordyn has been a real key and a staple for us building this program," Finley said. "We're really proud of the effort that she's made. She's a true competitor and you can see that."