Gators women's basketball: Florida edges past Wofford in opening round of WNIT

Ainslie Lee
The Gainesville Sun

Florida senior Leilani Correa had already produced a big night before stepping to the free throw line with 12 seconds to play in the Gators' WNIT first-round matchup against the Wofford Terriers.

While she was well on her way to leading Florida's scoring efforts with 24 points on the night, no two shots were as vital as Correa's pair of made free throws late in the game, which extended the Gators' lead out to three points in the final seconds of play.

The Terriers went on to attempt the game-tying heave, but Annabelle Shultz's shot wouldn't go, allowing the Gators to come away with a 66-63 win from Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center Thursday night.

"That was a very good Wofford team. They won their conference so they came with a challenge," Florida senior Nina Rickards said. "We fought back and we did what the Gators do, which is strive through adversity."

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What Gators lacked on the glass, they made up for in shooting

Wofford out-rebounded Florida 45-28 Thursday night, paving the way for the Terriers to put up 16 second-chance points − a mark that doubled the Gators.

Wofford junior Helen Matthews led the floor with 12 rebounds and was the only player on either team to finish with a double-double as she also tallied 10 points for the Terriers.

Fortunately for the Gators, while they struggled on the boards, they shot well on their home floor.

Florida finished the night having shot just better than 47% from the floor. Correa, who came off the bench for the Gators, went 8-for-14 from the field and 3-for-8 from downtown, making her the only player on Florida's roster to sink more than one three-pointer against Wofford.

"I thought we shot the ball particularly well," said Florida head coach Kelly Rae Finley.

Rickards and fellow senior KK Deans also posted double-digit finishes against the Terriers as Rickards tallied 18 points and Deans was good for 15 points.

For Rickards, the night was extra special as she scored her 1,000th point with the Gators on a layup with 6:56 to play in the game, becoming the 27th player in program history to reach the mark.

"I actually didn't know I was that close until I was reminded by some of my teammates this week," Rickards said of the milestone. "I really wasn't focusing on that this game, I really just wanted to get the win and it happened. I was playing hard and it happened, so it's exciting to know that all the work I've put in, I've been here all four years, is paying off and showing. I'm glad to be here…Forever a Gator."

Wofford also had three players in double-digits as sophomore Rachel Rose led with 19 points, while Matthews and fifth-year senior Jackie Carmen finished with 10 points apiece.

Florida converts Wofford turnovers

The turnover battle was much like the score: tight.

By the final whistle, the Gators had managed to win the turnover margin as they forced the Terriers to cough up the basketball 19 times to Florida's 14 turnovers.

"That team averages 10 turnovers a game," said Finley. "I thought it was really our defensive intensity that really set the tone for us."

The hot hands of Florida's quartet made up of Correa, Deans, Rickards and sophomore Jeriah Warren helped the Gators finish with 13 total steals as each of them tallied three steals apiece.

But the big difference-maker was on the other end of the floor as the Gators successfully converted forced turnovers into points, scoring 20 points off turnovers to the Terriers' nine.

Battle with Wake Forest next on Florida's schedule

After beating Wofford at home Thursday night, Florida hits the road for another opportunity to win and advance in the WNIT.

The Gators draw a trip to Winston-Salem, N.C. to battle the Wake Forest Demon Deacons on Monday night at 6 p.m. The Deacons (17-16) are coming off a lopsided 75-49 win over Morgan State in the opening round of the tournament.

"We want to get a feel for what it's like to play in late March. Even though it's not the NCAA Tournament, we're still going to take this opportunity and try to win it all," Rickards said. "It's very important for my younger teammates and I to get this experience and to compete. There's really good teams in the WNIT, so we're going to take it and run with it, and it should be fun."