CHARLOTTE, NC - Led by freshman Jordyn Merritt's 18 points and 17 rebounds and her first career double-double, the University of Florida women's basketball team (12-13) held on for a 66-65 victory over Charlotte (10-11) Friday night at Bojangles Coliseum, securing a spot in the WNIT's second round on Saturday.
With the score tied at 64-64 with 20 seconds to play, first-year guard Brynn Farrell calmly knocked down a pair of free throws which proved to be the eventual game-winning conversions as the Gators broke through for their first postseason win in seven years.
Advancing to the second round, Florida will take on the winner of tonight's matchup between Villanova and UMass. The Gators' second round matchup is set for 8 p.m. ET and will be streamed live on FloHoops with an accompanying radio broadcast on WRUF ESPN 98.1 with Kyle Crooks and Brittany Davis on the call.
Scoring in double figures for the 24th time in 25 games and totaling 20 or more for the 11th time this season, Kiki Smith was sensational yet again with 21 points, six rebounds and four assists.
Playing without the services of starters Nina Rickards and Faith Dut, who were not able to compete due to health and safety protocols, Florida played with just eight active players. Throw in the absence of All-SEC guard Lavender Briggs, whose season was cut short due to a foot injury on Feb. 15, and Florida was without three of its core contributors but the resilient Gators found a way to win amid the adversity.
The Gators led for over 35 minutes in the contest and by as many as eight but the 49ers, playing in an arena just nine miles from their campus, battled back to tie the game late after Conference USA First Team selection Octavia Jett-Wilson connected on a three-pointer with 1:21 to play.
UF, which held a commanding 38-24 edge in points in the paint, finished the game shooting 43.9 percent from the floor and limited Charlotte to just 31.1 percent shooting, allowing its third-lowest field goal percentage of the season. The Gators' stingy defense helped slow down a Charlotte offense which entered the contest averaging a Conference USA-best 76.1 points per game.
Improving to 15-7 all-time in the WNIT and 6-1 in first round play, the short-handed Gators saw several players step up to take on larger roles, including Merritt who established new career bests in points and rebounds. Appearing for 14 minutes off UF's bench, Farrell matched her career high with eight points while junior guard Kristina Moore chipped in with nine points and five rebounds. Graduate transfer Cydnee Kinslow also came up in the clutch with five points in the fourth quarter, setting a new season high.
The game was billed to be scorer's dual between Smith and Jett-Wilson and it lived up to the expectation as they each went over 20 points. Jett-Wilson finished with a game-high 26 on 8-of-22 shooting for the contest.
The Gators scored the first seven points of the game and jumped out to a 14-7 lead after making six of their first seven shots. Florida possessed a 16-13 edge at the game's first media timeout in what was a fast-paced opening five minutes of play; the teams combined to make 12 of their first 18 shots. At 23-17, Florida led after the first quarter. The senior guard Smith set the tone early with 10 points in the first 10 minutes. Smith and the Gators came out with an aggressive tempo and offensive game plan, making 10 of their 19 shots in the frame. Totaling their most first quarter points since Dec. 21, the Gators saw five different players score in the opening stanza.
The game's pace and both team's offenses slowed considerably in the second frame but Florida took a 35-32 lead into the intermission. The Gators continued to build in the second, establishing a 31-24 edge with under four minutes to play, but Charlotte utilized a 6-0 run to trim the gap to 31-30.
Leading for all but 17 seconds in the opening half, Florida shot 41.9 percent in the first two periods combined. After a hot-shooting opening stanza, UF's production slowed in the second as it shot just 25 percent. Florida took advantage of its trips to the line though, making seven of nine tries from the charity stripe. Smith led all scorers with 13 at the break while Jett-Wilson had 12. Merritt was nearly to a double-double with nine points and nine rebounds.
In the third, the Gators extended their edge back to six at 44-38 after a momentous offensive rebound and put back from Merritt. Out of the media stoppage in play with 4:46 remaining, Charlotte scored eight-consecutive points to take its first lead of the game at 46-44. Soon after, Smith snapped the cold streak with a floater to tie it at 46-46. Charlotte entered the fourth quarter with the momentum at its backs after Jazmin Harris scored off of an offensive rebound and layup at the buzzer to put the 49ers ahead 48-46.
After limiting the Gators to just 11 points and scoring 16 of their own, the 49ers led heading into the final frame after a 10-2 run to end the quarter.
The Gators retook the lead early in the fourth after Smith came up with a steal and then drove the length of the court to find Merritt on a nifty bounce pass. The freshman from Texas dropped it in to put Florida ahead 51-50 and from this point forward, the Gators would never trail. Following a pair of free throws from Jett-Wilson, Kinslow connected on what was a pivotal three-pointer from the corner to put UF out in front, 55-50 with under five minutes to play. The Long Beach State transfer scored again with 2:32 remaining to help push Florida's edge to seven. Charlotte charged back with a 7-0 run that culminated with Jett-Wilson's triple to tie the game. Merritt came up empty in her trip to the line with nine seconds left, leaving the door open for Charlotte which trailed by just one and had possession with seven seconds left. The 49ers were unable to get a shot off as the horn sounded and the Gators walked away with a gritty postseason win.
Head Coach Cam Newbauer
Overall thoughts on the game...
"So proud of this team with everything that we have endured these last couple weeks. We have talked about all year as a program about next man up and being ready to make plays when your number is called. You referenced Jordyn's double-double tonight, not just a double-double but 17 points and 18 rebounds. She really stepped up big for us tonight. Brynn Farrell missed a lot of practice this week, she comes in and hits some big free throws and layups. Cydnee Kinslow made a huge three and all five of her points were in the fourth quarter late. She made some great basketball plays. Hats off to those three and Floor Toonders too. You know kids that maybe don't have a ton of experience but just stayed ready all year. Emily Sullivan did the same thing, coming in and playing 14 minutes and boxing out and doing some really good things for us. Just so proud that it was a different team with who we had personnel wise. Charlotte did a really good job on Kiki (Smith), frustrating her and frustrating us in general with forcing 19 turnovers. Their defensive prowess and athleticism were major factors. I'm just really proud of all the players we had step up and make plays that maybe didn't have the opportunity all year. They have just stayed the course and fought through things and made big time plays for us to win this game today."
On the significance of a postseason win...
"Any time you can play in the postseason is a great thing and anytime you can win in postseason it's a great thing. To win a game like this with a lot of unfriendly things for you during the game, you know not at home. We had all kinds of adversity that we could have used as excuses this week and also during the game, but we didn't do that. We just put our best foot forward and said we are going to be the best version of ourselves."
- Florida improves to 15-7 all time in the WNIT and 6-1 in first round play.
- Friday marked Florida's first postseason win since the 2013-14 NCAA Tournament when it defeated Dayton.
- Florida extends its lead to 8-1 in its all-time series with Charlotte and is now 8-1 against non-conference opponents this season.
- Smith scored over 20 points for the ninth time in her last 13 games, she has led the Gators in scoring in seven straight games.
- The Gators are 11-3 when holding their opponent to fewer than 70 points.
- The Gators are 11-1 when leading at the half.
- Three players matched or set new seasons highs for the Gators.
- Advancing to the second round, Florida will take on the winner of tonight's matchup between Villanova and UMass. The Gators' second round matchup is set for 8 p.m. ET and will be streamed live on FloHoops with an accompanying radio broadcast on WRUF ESPN 98.1 with Kyle Crooks and Brittany Davis on the call.