GREENVILLE, SC - The University of Florida women's basketball team will march on to day two of the SEC Women's Basketball Tournament, as it took out the Auburn Tigers 69-62, in the event's first round of play Wednesday evening inside Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
Senior guard Kiki Smith led the way again for the Gators with 19 points, five rebounds and four assists, pacing the team in scoring for the 11th time this season. The standout scored her 1,000th career point with a tear-drop floater with 9:42 left in the fourth quarter, becoming just the 26th player in program history to eclipse the 1,000-point mark.
In a game that featured seven lead changes, five ties and each team leading for over 10 minutes, Florida held the upperhand in the end and defeated the Tigers for the second time this season.
After leading by just one at the intermission, 33-32, the Gators built an 18-point advantage in the third quarter thanks to a 13-0 scoring run. Florida's large lead was short lived though as the Tigers closed the third on a run and eventually claimed the lead early in the fourth quarter. Following an 11-0 Auburn run, Florida trailed 55-54 but regrouped and responded with its own massive scoring run at 12-0 to take the lead back and put away the No. 13 seed Tigers.
Veteran Danielle Rainey, scoring in double figures for the 13th time in her career, tallied 13 including a pair of momentous three-pointers during a 35 second span in a pivotal stretch in the fourth quarter. Kristina Moore, the third and final player to finish with 10 or more points, compiled 11 to go with seven rebounds and scored on a crucial possession with 45 seconds remaining to put the game out of reach.
With the victory, the Gators move onto the second round where they will take on fifth-seeded Kentucky Thursday afternoon. Tipoff will take place approximately 25 minutes following the conclusion of the 11 a.m. game on SEC Network. Florida and Kentucky met back on Feb. 18 in Gainesville. Despite a career-night from Nina Rickards, the Gators dropped that contest 88-80 to the No. 17 Wildcats.
Snapping a skid of four-straight losses, the Gators received contributions from up-and-down the roster with five players tallying at least nine points. Newly-minted All-SEC Freshman, Jordyn Merritt, produced a solid all-around game with nine points and seven boards while the sophomore guard Rickards chipped in with nine of her own and seven rebounds.
Florida, which led for nearly 24 minutes in the contest, held a 39-32 edge in rebounding and completed the game with a 47 percent (26-of-55) shooting performance from the floor. UF limited Auburn to just 66 points after it had allowed 80 or more points in three of the four games leading up to Wednesday's matchup.
Auburn featured a trio of double-figure scorers also and All-SEC stalwart Unique Thompson added a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
The Gators fell behind 5-0 but scored five-straight to knot things up quickly. After making four of its first nine shots including two of its first three from three-point range, Auburn led 10-5 early. The Gators used a 7-0 scoring run to jump ahead 12-10 and after a triple from the corner from Rainey, Auburn burned a timeout to try quell Florida's run with 3:39 to play in the first. The Tigers countered with a 6-0 surge to jump out to a 16-12 edge with under 1:30 to play. Florida closed strong though and the tally was even at 16-16 after one quarter had expired. Six different Gators scored in the frame, led by Rickards' five points.
Moore blocked two shots on the same possession and then drove down the length of the court and drew a foul, making both of her tries from the stripe to put Florida ahead 22-21 midway through the second.
Florida vaulted itself back ahead in the second after outscoring the Tigers 17-16 and carried a 33-32 edge at the intermission. The Gators shot 41 percent as a team and outrebounded Auburn 20-16 in the first half. Smith paced the Gators with eight points, connecting on four of her nine attempts. Merritt was active in the first half with five points and five boards.
The rookie from Texas, Merritt, opened the second half with a steal and a coast-to-coast layup to help set the tone out of the gates. The Gators held the Tigers scoreless for the for the first 5:21 seconds of the second half and used a 13-0 run to take control of the game. Florida built its largest lead of the game at 52-34. With the momentum at its back Florida looked to be in the driver's seat but the Tigers kept chipping away and employed a 12-0 run of their own to reduce the deficit to just 52-46 heading into the final stanza. Smith scored seven quick points early in the period to lead the Gators, who made eight of their 15 shots in the stanza. Auburn scored 12 points in the final two minutes after being held scoreless for the first five minutes plus.
The Tigers kept the momentum in their favor to open their fourth, continuing with what would end up as an 11-0 run. With its back suddenly against the wall, Florida needed a basket bad and Moore would provide it when she drilled a three-pointer to things up at 57-57 with 6:16 remaining. Moore's conversion would set the table for Rainey's clutch shooting as the Washington, D.C. native, Rainey, converted a three-pointer to put UF in front 60-57. From this point forward, Florida would never trail.
Just 35 seconds later, Rainey would make another three-pointer to make it a six-point game and the Gators continued to pile it on, growing their run to 12-0 eventually. After restoring its lead back to nine points, Florida would face a few runs from Auburn late.
After a nearly three-minute scoreless drought for the Gators, Auburn crept back to within four after a pair of free throws from Thompson at the 45 second mark. On the ensuing possession, with the shot clock winding down Moore slashed through the lane and dropped in a left-handed layup to provide some much-needed breathing room. Merritt then took charge on the next possession to seal the win.
Head Coach Cam Newbauer
Overall thoughts on the game and Kiki's milestone performance...
"Kiki Smith, it's what she does. She takes over when we need her most. Missed some shots that she normally hits today, but really took over big when we needed her to, especially defensively. That's the one part where you -- we don't give her enough credit for what she does defensively, her ability out there to disrupt things. She spearheads that for us.
Such a competitive warrior heart. Just so proud of her. Glad she got the thousand points. Glad we get to fight another day."
On the team's balanced effort...
"Really proud. We talk about being ready all year when your number is called, being ready to perform when we need you to produce. That's exactly what happened today. Jordyn Merritt takes that huge charge, 9.7 rebounds. Danielle Rainey hits the two threes, with three minutes to go. I forget what it was, big shots. Kristina Moore with that driving layup, that allowed defensive stops. Nina in her first half having some good scores, that attack at the rim. Second and third quarter, the 9.7 rebounds. Floor's defense. Faith had some big baskets for us. Everybody. Our bench was energized, engaged.
I love the resolve we've had all year. Just so proud of our team. It doesn't have anything to do with the results, just has to do with competing, sticking together and being the best version of ourselves."
Senior Kiki Smith
On scoring 1,000 points...
"Yeah, honestly I had no idea that I was that close to a thousand. After the game my teammates are the ones who told me. It feels good. The win is just added on top of that. It's a good day for us. I'm really proud of our team. We had some big-time shots exactly when we needed them. Between everybody else, Jordyn's charge at crunch time, everybody stepped up. It was a great day."
On her teammates and their strong effort...
"Yeah, we knew that we was going to have to really get down on our rebounding because they have Unique Thompson, who averages a double-double, then they have guards who crash really hard. In our huddles just talking about locking in, hitting our defenders, rebounding, pursuing the ball. We had people who really locked in on that and made that a focus. They got big-time rebounds when we needed them, for sure."
- UF improves to 22-40 in SEC Tournament play and 4-3 in first round play.
- Smith has finished in double figures in 22 of UF's 23 games.
- Smith became the 26th player in program history to score over 1,000 points.
- Cam Newbauer improves to 10-5 in league tournaments.
- Florida improves to 3-8 all-time vs. the Tigers in SEC postseason play.
- UF improves to 10-1 when leading at the half.
- Florida has won its last three games against Auburn.
- Wednesday marked the Gators' 13th nationally-televised contest, its most since the 2014-15 season.
- Rainey put together her 13th career double-figure scoring game and her 10th game with multiple made three's this year.
- Rainey has scored 10 or more points in three of UF's last five games.
- The Gators defeated Auburn for the second time this season and have won the last three matchups against the Tigers.
- UF has won the rebounding battle in seven of its last 10 games