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UF Women’s Basketball: Gators Give No. 17 Wildcats All They Can Handle But Fall 88-80 Monday Night

Nina Rickards picked up her second career double-double and set new career highs in points (19) and assists (6).

Courtesy of University Athletic Association

BY SAM STOLTE

Women’s basketball puts together spirited fight but falls despite tremendous individual efforts and elite shooting performance

Despite a combined 62 points between Kiki Smith, Nina Rickards, and Danielle Rainey, the University of Florida women’s basketball team came up short in a hard-fought contest against the No. 17 Kentucky Wildcats, 88-80, Monday evening at Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
 
Taking the court for the first time this season without the services of star guard Lavender Briggs, who will miss the remainder of the season due to a foot injury, the Gators saw several players step up with strong performances, and their fight never wavered as they sliced a 16-point deficit down to three in the fourth quarter.
 
Florida shot a season-high 51.7 percent from the floor, knocked down 10 of its 18 three-point tries, and tallied 17 second chance points, but could not quite get over the hump against the nationally-ranked Wildcats, who improved to 15-5 and 8-4 in SEC play.
 
Without the services of Briggs, it was clear that others would need to up their games, and Rickards and Rainey sure answered the bell. Registering her second career double-double, Rickards, the sophomore from Queens, poured in a career-high 19 points to go with 10 rebounds and career-high six assists in 35 minutes. Rainey, making her second straight start, caught fire and provided a huge lift for the Gators with 20 points, matching her career high. Scoring her most points since tallying 20 against these same Kentucky Wildcats back in February of 2019, the redshirt senior lit up the O’Connell Center scoreboard with a career-best six 3-pointers.
 
In addition to the breakout efforts from Rainey and Rickards, the always-steady Smith delivered yet again from the point guard position with a team-high 23 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, and two steals. Finishing with her team-best sixth double-double, Smith would not let the Gators fade as she played with an attacking presence all game. The senior stalwart has scored 20 or more points in six of her last seven games.
 
After trailing by 16 points at a point in the third quarter, Florida kept chipping away and narrowed the gap to just 75-72 with 5:49 remaining in the game after a driving layup by Smith. Following its 8-0 run, Florida endured a lengthy dry spell, and the Wildcats pulled away with a 12-1 run to deny the Gators’ top-25 upset bid.
 
The short-handed Gators faced a tall task going up against one of the nation’s finest players in UK’s Rhyne Howard. Howard added a game-high 31, scoring over 30 points for the sixth time in her career. The Wildcats, like the Gators, shot over 50 percent for the game, coming in at 53.7 percent.
 
In what was a fun game to watch if you’re a fan of fast-paced and efficient offenses, Florida kept fighting back despite a barrage of scoring runs from the Wildcats.
 
Winning the battle of the boards 36-30, Florida out-rebounded its opponent for the 10th time this season. Freshman Floor Toonders, again earning the start for the Gators, snagged six rebounds and dropped in six points. 
 
Florida won the fourth quarter and led for over eight minutes in the game, but a late run by the Wildcats proved to be the difference.
 
Kentucky jumped out to a quick 6-0 lead after a pair of connections from three-point range in the first minute of play, but Florida answered just as swiftly back with six straight points of its own. Florida withstood the early scoring outpour, and the teams were deadlocked at 13-13 at the game’s first media timeout following a 6-of-11 shooting start from UF. Both teams came out of the gates shooting very well, combining to make 12 of their first 22 attempts. Kentucky held a narrow 21-19 edge at the first quarter’s end after both teams shot above 50 percent from the floor.
 
Florida opened the second quarter blazing hot from the floor and employed a 10-2 run. After a driving layup by Rickards, Florida took a 29-23 lead, which prompted a UK timeout. The redshirt senior Rainey scored eight points in the first two minutes of the second quarter, igniting for a pair of three-pointers. UF extended its lead to seven points, but the Wildcats closed the half on a 10-0 run and carried a 47-42 edge into the intermission.
 
The first half featured six ties and two lead changes, and each squad possessed the lead for over eight minutes. Florida shot 53.3 percent in the first half, its best shooting first half of the season. The Gators made 17 of their 31 attempts, including a 5-of-7 performance from deep. Seven of UF’s eight players to see the court scored in the first half, paced by Rainey’s 11. Florida’s offensive excellence allowed it to go toe-to-toe with the Wildcats, who shot 55 percent from the floor and drained five of their own treys.  
 
After a Smith free throw conversion in the early going of the third quarter, Kentucky rattled off seven consecutive points to secure its first double-figure advantage of the game at 54-43 with 7:44 to play. The Wildcats’ run provoked a Florida timeout. Rickards helped the Gators snap the skid, though, with a tough finish in the lane to draw the Gators back to within single digits. The Wildcats just would not slow down as they made seven of their first 12 shots in the third quarter and led 66-52 at the under-five media timeout. Howard erupted for 13 points in the first six minutes of the stanza.
 
Florida made six of seven shots, including three straight in a span, to bring it back to within 11 with under two minutes to play. After UK outscored the Gators 23-17 in the period, Florida faced a 70-59 deficit heading into the fourth. Rickards was outstanding in the third, scoring eight points on 4-of-6 shooting.
 
Howard scored the first points of the fourth quarter, but the Gators blitzed back with a 6-0 run to quickly shrink the gap to just two possessions, as back-to-back triples from Smith and Rickards made it a 71-65 ball game with 8:43 to play. UF employed an 11-3 run and trailed just 75-72 with under five minutes to play.
 
When it looked like it may have Kentucky against the ropes, Florida could not buy a basket and went without a field goal for over five minutes while the Wildcats pulled away late.
 
Scoring six or more points for the third straight game, freshman Brynn Farrell chipped in six points, two rebounds, and an assist for UF.
 
NEXT UP: Florida returns to game action Thursday when it hosts Alabama for the second of its three games this week.
 
QUOTABLES

Head Coach Cam Newbauer

On the team’s performance…
“I just love the fight, the resolve, the connection that our players had today. We’re down 16 with three and a half [minutes] to go in the third and to fight back and cut it to 3, with some young players on the floor, against a very good team. I like that we kept fighting. I’m really proud of our ladies today for how they fought and competed today in this game.”

On the first game playing without Lavender Briggs
 “It’s your first game without her, so you’re trying to figure out who’s going to fill that void, take those shots because she does so much for us. Just knowing that we can compete in this league. We don’t have Lav, but we have enough. And we are enough. And we can compete. And we can fight. And we can stay connected and become who we are, without Lav. Change is inevitable. You lose a player, you have to change. Progress is a choice. And our players chose today that we’re going to progress without her and we’re not going to hang our head and be down. We’re going to compete. And that’s what they did. I think we will keep competing and keep fighting, best we can.”

On what Kiki Smith brings to the floor…
 “I love what Kiki Smith does for our team and our program and this university. She’s such an amazing ambassador with her passion and her drive and it’s infectious.”

Senior Kiki Smith
On players stepping up with Lavender Briggs out…
“I’m very proud. Like you just said, missing Lav is definitely a huge factor for us. You know, that’s 20 points a game and 40 minutes a game, so it was good to have Danielle in there and even Brynn. Brynn came in and hit two big, tough threes for us. Kris came back today, for her first game she did well. She got two big shots when we need it, so I thought everybody made plays at the moments when we needed it and I’m proud for that.”
 
Senior Danielle Rainey

On the younger players on the team…
“Super proud. I mean our young’uns have been in the gym more than anybody, I think. They’ve had a different mentality these last few games. Anyway, I think today, really just felt what it is like to be in the SEC playing against these top teams. A lot of them have been in the gym, Jordyn, Brynn, Nina, they’ve all been in the gym working. Floor has been working on, you know, parts of her game stuff like that too. I think it was a really good opportunity for them to showcase what they do when the lights were on.”

 On her shooting performance…
“It was a feeling that I can’t really even explain, just the adrenaline from all of us. I just kind of fed off the energy of my teammates, we were all in each other’s ear. I mean, we all came into this game with a different chip on our shoulder. We had Lav out, like you said 40 minutes and 20 points a game. That’s one of the key factors on this team. We came into this game with a different type of energy. We played a little looser.”
 
NOTABLES

  • Sophomore Nina Rickards scored a career-high 19 points and finished with the second double-double of her career with 10 rebounds. She also tallied a career-high six assists.
  • Redshirt-senior guard Danielle Rainey poured in 20 points on a career-high six 3-pointers. Rainey matched her career best.
  • Rainey had her most points since scoring 20 vs. Kentucky 743 days ago.
  • Senior Kiki Smith collected her team-best sixth double-double, and she scored 20 or more points for the sixth time in her last games.
  • Florida played without the services of sophomore star Lavender Briggs, who will miss the remainder of the season with a foot injury.
  • The Gators shot 51.7 percent from the floor, a season best.
  • Florida made 10 three-pointers, its second most of the season.
  • UF shot a season-high 55.6 percent from three-point range.
  • Florida out-rebounded its opponent for the 10th time and fell for just the second time when doing so.
  • Florida added 15 assists, the third-highest single-game mark this season for the Gators.
  • Freshman Florida Toonders made her third straight start.
  • Senior reserve Danielle Rainey appeared in the starting lineup for the second game in a row, while Jordyn Merritt made her third career start.
  • The Gators featured their sixth different lineup combination of the campaign.
  • Florida shot 53.3 in the first half, a season-best performance for any first half this season.