NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Florida women's basketball mounted an impressive 13-point comeback victory in the second round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, defeating Vanderbilt 53-52 in the final seconds to advance to the quarterfinal round on Friday afternoon.
The Gators (21-9, 10-6 SEC) saved their best for last, entering the fourth quarter trailing the Commodores (14-18, 4-12 SEC) by 11, 44-33.
The Orange & Blue wasted no time cutting into VU's lead, using an 8-2 spurt, capped off by a Jordyn Merritt triple, to pull within five with 6:59 left on the clock.
All momentum from either team appeared to be halted with 4:16 on the clock when Kiara Smith, one of the Florida's top players, went down and had to be helped off the court by the UF athletic trainers.
Rallying for their injured teammate, the Gators trimmed the lead to one point following a Zippy Broughton jumper with 3:18 remaining.
Vanderbilt found themselves ahead, 52-49, with 46 seconds remaining, but that didn't deter the Gators from attacking the bucket. Broughton managed to split the defense for a layup with 37 seconds remaining, again making it a one-point game.
Sasha Washington of the Commodores was fouled with 11 seconds left, but missed both free throws, opening a window for Nina Rickards to give UF the victory following two free throws with eight seconds remaining.
Merritt secured the game for the Gators, cleanly rejecting an Iyana Moore field-goal attempt with under a second left in the game, ensuring Florida's place in the quarterfinal round.
Florida led for just eight seconds -- the final eight --of the night.
Offensively, it was the duo of Rickards and Broughton who led the UF effort, ending with 15 and 14 points, respectively.
The Gators ended the day shooting just 21-of-55 (38.2%) from the floor and 3-of-14 (21.4%) from long range. In a flip from the last meeting, Florida outrebounded the Commodores on Thursday, 42-36.
Rickards pulled-down a team-best eight boards while Merritt grabbed six of her own. The rebounding advantage helped the Gators to a 26-20 edge in points in the paint.
On the defensive end, the Gators managed to shut down the strong shooting Vanderbilt exhibited in a first-round win over Texas A&M, holding the opposition to 19-of-63 (30.2%) from the field and 5-of-19 (26.3%) from three-point range.
Merritt acted as a centerpiece to the defense, recording three blocks and a steal.
The Commodores were led by Brinae Alexander with 18 points, four steals and three rebounds.
It was all Vanderbilt to start the game on Thursday afternoon, with the Commodores racing out to a 12-0 advantage, forcing a Florida timeout with 6:55 left in the period. Out of the break, Smith put an end to the Vanderbilt run, converting a layup through contact to get the Gators on the board.
After the Commodores would push the lead back to 12, Rickards put the offense on her back, going on a 10-2 run herself to pull the Orange & Blue to within four at 16-12 heading into the second quarter. Florida's defense intensified as well, holding the 13th-seeded Commodores scoreless for the final 2:45 of the frame and two minutes into the second quarter.
The second quarter was much more of a slugfest for both squads, as Taliyah Wyche and Alexander exchanged buckets to start the quarter. Merritt, off of a bullet over the top from Broughton, tied the game at 18 with 5:44 left in the period.
A quick 5-0 spurt by the Commodores would again extend their lead to 23-18, however. Florida would cut the lead to three, but a 6-0 run by Vanderbilt would create a 31-22 halftime deficit for the Gators. Four triples from the Commodores in the first half helped keep the Gators behind, but Vanderbilt's defense against made UF uncomfortable, forcing the into 13 first half turnovers.
The Florida defense didn't make life easy on the Commodores, holding the opposition to 12-of-37 (32.4%) shooting in the opening half. Much like the opening frame of the game, the third quarter started with Rickards awakening the offense, pulling the Gators back to within five following a triple and mid-range jumper after Vanderbilt pulled-ahead by 10 early in the quarter.
During that stretch, Florida managed to hold the Commodores scoreless for 4:03. Vanderbilt would use an 8-0 run over 2:37 to open up a 13-point lead at 42-29 before back-to-back buckets from Broughton inched the Gators closer, heading into the final quarter down 44-33 before the thrilling fourth-quarter finish.
SEC Tournament Quick Hits
- Florida improves to 23-41 all-time in the SEC Tournament .
- The Gators are now 15-17 in the second round of the SEC Tournament.
- Florida now holds a 4-3 series advantage over the Commodores in the SEC Tournament .
- UF has secured a spot in the quarterfinal round for the first time since 2016 - The Gators are 1-1 all-time against Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament
Florida will be back in action on Friday afternoon at approximately 3:30 p.m. ET when they take on Ole Miss for a spot in the semi-final round.