GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Florida senior Nina Rickards gave the Gators the boost they needed, recording a career-best 23 points to help the Orange & Blue to an 82-73 victory over Bethune-Cookman on Friday evening.
Rickards' 23 points for the Gators (3-1, 0-0 SEC) led the way, while Jordyn Merritt (14), KK Deans (11) and Ra Shaya Kyle (10) all scored in double-figures. As a team, the Gators were efficient from the field, shooting 26-of-50 (52%) from the field and 5-of-9 (55.6%) from three-point range.
The stellar night didn't just include scoring for the Queens, N.Y., native, as she also led UF with eight rebounds, while the team held a 36-29 advantage on the glass over Bethune-Cookman (0-3, 0-0 SWAC).
On the defensive end, Florida forced 20 turnovers which resulted in 13 steals and 18 points-off-turnovers. Merritt recorded three of the Gators' steals, with two each coming from Leilani Correa, Deans and Faith Dut.
Indiana-transfer, Chanel Wilson, paced the Wildcats with 24 points, four rebounds and three steals.
Holding just a four-point lead with three minutes left, Florida was put into a position to have to close out a game. The Gators didn't disappoint. Merritt connected on a crucial three-pointer with 1:48 on the clock and less than a minute later, Deans found Kyle over-the-top for a layup to extend the UF lead to 77-68 with just 54 seconds remaining.
Deans and Rickards would close out the game at the free throw line, securing an 82-73 victory for the Gators.
There was no slow start on Friday for the Gators, as Merritt knocked down back-to-back triples to open the game and set the pace for UF. A layup from the Wildcats would interrupt Merritt's scoring, but a triple from Rickards and tough layup from Kyle pushed Florida's lead to 11-2 with 6:05 left in the period.
Florida's defense continued to keep the Wildcats at bay, not allowing BCU within eight for the remainder of the quarter. Dut, who scored the last point of the quarter for the Gators, swatted a Wildcat layup attempt before knocking down a free throw to make it 20-9 in favor of the Orange & Blue after one.
The Wildcats came out swinging in the second quarter, using a quick 6-0 spurt to close the gap to five with 8:08 left in the half. After a back-and-forth exchange, Correa and Rickards used the charity stripe to re-open up a 10-point advantage, 32-22, at the 3:52 mark.
Bethune-Cookman again managed to close the gap to five after a Nia Jordan jumper with under three minutes left, and five is where the lead for UF would remain heading into the half, 37-32. Florida needed their strong offense during the opening 20 minutes, shooting 14-of-27 (51.9%) from the field, led by Rickards' 11 points.
The visitors pushed the Orange & Blue in the third quarter, connecting on three-consecutive buckets out of halftime to grab a 38-37 lead with 7:12 on the clock. Rickards converted a tough lay-in through contact for and and-one attempt with 4:26 remaining to regain a 50-46 lead, but a minute later saw the Wildcats back within one following four-straight points. An exchange of buckets towards the end of the period set up the dramatic finish in the fourth, with the Gators holding a 57-53 lead heading into the final frame.
Head Coach Kelly Rae Finley
On getting to the free throw line in the second half...
"We think that that's a place that we had an advantage, and so, making a concerted effort to drop our shoulders, to put our head down, eyes up of course, and really attack. Force rotation and then trust our decision making in real time with a quick pace. I thought we did a much better job of that in the second half."
On the team's ability to stay in the game and attack the basket...
"We had great leadership through those moments. Like I said, I was really pleased with our effort, the communication. Obviously, Nina, Faith, KK, Jordyn, Shay, being able to come in, offensive, defensive substitutions. Those are some things and skills that we're going to need to really, really put ourselves in good positions moving forward and I thought we were able to do that."
Senior Guard Nina Rickards
On her career-high performance...
"Honestly, I was just trying to be a leader on the court just by talking, communicating and making sure everybody was out of their head and focused on the next play, so I wasn't even aware that I had a career-high because I wasn't looking at the score or how many points I had. I just stayed in the moment and that's something I've been working on and having that determined mindset and getting me and my teammates going."
On what she said to the team after halftime...
"I just told them we're only going to beat ourselves. We've got to get out of our heads and continue to talk and encourage each other, because that's the only way we're going to continue to play great. A lot of us, we get in our heads when we're not having our way on the court, but something I learned is just being able to encourage my teammates and know that they have my back, that's what keeps us going, so that's what I communicated with them."
- Florida now owns an 8-0 advantage over Bethune-Cookman in the all-time series.
- Rickards' 21 points mark a career-best for the senior.
- The 52% shooting effort is the best since shooting 53.2% in an 84-59 victory over Tennessee on Feb. 3, 2022.
- Four or more Gators have scored in double-figures in each of the first four games, marking the first time that's happened since the 2016-17 season when they accomplished the feat from Dec. 20, 2016-Jan. 1, 2017.
- The Gators have forced 20 or more turnovers in three of their first four games for the first time since the 2015-16 season.
Florida returns to action at Exactech Arena on Monday, Nov. 21, when the Furman Paladins come to town for a 6 p.m. ET game. The game will be streamed live on SEC Network+.