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UF Women’s Basketball: Smith Shines With Career-best 36, but Florida Falls to Kentucky, 73-64, in SEC Tournament Action

Senior Kiki Smith scored a career-high 36 points for the Gators.

Courtesy of University Athletic Association

BY SAM STOLTE

Women’s basketball builds lead in fourth quarter and gives Wildcats all they can handle but falls short Thursday afternoon

Despite a career-best 36 points from senior guard Kiki Smith, the University of Florida women’s basketball team dropped a hard-fought 73-64 decision to the fifth-seeded Kentucky Wildcats in the SEC Tournament’s second round of play Thursday at Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
 
Scoring the second-most points ever by a Florida player in SEC Tournament play and the ninth-most in the event’s history, Smith had a special night for the Gators. She came out hot, scoring 15 of Florida’s first 17, and kept things rolling, as she had 29 going into the fourth quarter. The District Heights, Maryland native also tallied a team-best nine rebounds for the game as she scored 20 or more points for the 10th time this season.
 
Florida had some serious momentum and led for over 15 minutes in the contest, including the 58-55 edge it held with 4:42 to play at the game’s final media timeout. After trailing just 64-62 with 2:14 to play, Florida saw the Wildcats finish out regulation on a 9-2 run, denying its upset bid.
 
The Gators outscored the Wildcats in the first and third quarters, but Kentucky, the nation’s No. 17 team, held a pivotal 27-15 advantage in the final frame. Two-time SEC Player of the Year Rhyne Howard registered 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting and had nine points and three assists in the fourth.
 
Despite the result today, Smith’s efforts in Greenville won’t soon be forgotten. The steady point guard and team leader scored her 1,000th point Wednesday and led her team to a win before Thursday’s record-book-worthy performance.
 
Looking to secure a spot in the SEC Tournament’s quarterfinal round for the first time since 2016, the Gators played together and with a passionate focus but couldn’t overcome the Wildcats, who shot 49 percent from the floor for the game and assisted on 16 of their 30 field goals.
 
Only two players had 11 or more points in the game, as it was very much a showcase between two of the league’s finest players in Smith and Howard. Smith, who has been nothing short of sensational for the Gators down the stretch, finished with 20 or more points for the eighth time in her last 12 games.
 
After trailing just 33-32 at the half, Smith scored 11 of Florida’s 17 points in the third period. UF, which pulled off an upset and notched a signature win over this same Kentucky team last year in Lexington, turned some heads when it carried a 49-46 lead going into the fourth quarter.
 
Smith added seven more in the fourth, but it wasn’t quite enough to combat the Wildcats’ lights-out shooting in the fourth. UK drained 11 of its 14 attempts in the final quarter.
 
Playing all 40 minutes, sophomore Nina Rickards finished with seven points, four rebounds, and three assists.
 
The score was tied at 12-12 at the first quarter media timeout. Smith came out determined, tallying 10 of Florida’s first 12 points. The senior made four of her first seven shots, while the All-SEC guard Howard had seven of UK’s first 12. UF started five of nine from the floor, but soon after, both teams endured nearly three-minute scoreless droughts. Smith swished a jumper at the 2:10 mark to put Florida in front, 14-12, and the Gators held a 17-15 advantage after the quarter expired. Florida made seven of its 16 attempts in the frame, and six of those field goals belonged to Smith, who scored 15 of its first 17 points.
 
Brynn Farrell scored on the first possession of the second to give Florida a 19-15 lead. Howard tied the game on a conventional three-point play, and after UF’s Danielle Rainey made a timely three-pointer, Howard added another and-1 conversion on the next possession. After a three-pointer from the corner, Kentucky jumped ahead following a 6-0 run and possessed a 26-23 edge. Florida missed eight of nine shots in a segment, and with its do-it-all guard Smith on the bench, getting some well-earned rest, Florida went scoreless for over three minutes. Rickards snapped the spell with a driving layup. UK made three straight shots to grab a 33-29 lead, but Smith cashed in on a three-pointer with under a minute to play to make it a one-possession game heading into the break.
 
Florida faced a narrow 33-32 deficit at the end of the opening 20 minutes. The first half saw eight shifts of the lead and four ties, with each squad sustaining a lead for over six minutes. Smith and Howard went toe-to-toe in the first half, with Smith scoring 18 and Howard 17. Florida shot just 35 percent from the floor in the half and struggled to convert on its free throws, going just 3-of-10.
 
To begin the second half, Smith continued to push the envelope, scoring on five of the Gators’ first seven points. At the under-five media timeout, Florida possessed a 41-39 edge after holding the Wildcats to a 1-of-8 shooting stretch. Florida carried a 49-46 lead into the final period after winning the third, 17-13. UF shot 43 percent in the frame while putting together its best defensive quarter, limiting UK to just 6-of-17 shooting. Howard was quiet in the third, scoring just two points and attempting only two shots.
 
Smith scored her 30th point of the game on the opening possession of the fourth to put UF ahead 50-46. The Wildcats responded with a 6-0 scoring surge to reclaim the lead at 52-50, their first lead since the 6:57 mark of the third stanza. Florida quickly tied the game at 52-all after Smith calmly knocked down a pair of free throws with under seven minutes remaining in the game.
 
The Gators withstood the Kentucky attack and rebuilt a 58-55 lead after All-SEC Freshman team honoree Jordyn Merritt scored off an offensive rebound put-back. Kentucky then took a timeout with 4:41 to go and scored four straight points out of the stoppage to re-take the lead. Merritt would bring the Gators back to just one point after a jumper at the 3:14 mark, but that’s as close as they came the rest of the way. Howard converted another traditional three-point play at the 1:58 mark to put UK ahead 67-62.
 
Merritt finished the game with five rebounds and four points.
 
QUOTABLES

Head Coach Cam Newbauer

Overall thoughts on the game and Kiki’s Smith great effort…
“Kiki is just an absolute warrior. She made some shots today that were phenomenal. Finds seams where there seems to be no seam in the defense. Gave us everything she had. We just needed more from some other players, it just didn’t happen. Part of that is their defense. Part of that is our fatigue. Part of that is just shots not going down. We fought really hard. I mean, the last two and a half minutes. That’s a good team. Had a heck of a fourth quarter. Rhyne Howard, National Player of the Year without a doubt in my opinion, she took over. I thought we did a good job defending her. Nina did a good job on her in the third quarter and fourth quarter. Still, that kid is just so good. This one hurts. But we had opportunities. We had shots that didn’t go down. We had free throws. We had the lead at the media timeout in the fourth. We just had some untimely turnovers. Part of that is our youth, inexperience. But I really liked the fight, really loved our group. I love who we’ve become. Record does not indicate at all who we are as a team, that’s for sure.”
 
On what he learned from today’s game…
“Learned a lot. It stings. We got better throughout the course of the game on some things. Just got to be a little stronger, a little more poised here or there. You got to stay in the moment. You can’t get caught up in the last possession, what happened. You just got to trust your training and do what you know in that moment. You can’t get sped up. That happened a couple times. I do believe we’ll be better for it. We have mature kids that love to learn. They hate to fail, but they love to learn through failure. That’s what we will do.”
 
Senior Kiki Smith

On her career-high performance and the game…
“It felt good. Our energy was there, our effort was there. I mean, this game was probably like one of our best games all season, I would say. Just a couple turnovers at the wrong time. Rhyne Howard got the leak-out layup towards the end. We just tightened up on turnovers when we don’t need them or we definitely would have got the result we wanted.”
 
NOTABLES

  • Kiki Smith scored 36 points, the second-most in program history in SEC Tournament play, trailing just Merlakia Jones’ 39 points in the 1995 league event. 
  • Smith’s 36 points are the ninth-most ever in SEC Tournament action and the most since 2005.
  • Smith put together her second game with 30 or more points this season, tallying a new career best.
  • UF is 22-41 in SEC Tournament play and 14-17 in second round action.
  • The Gators fall to 2-6 against Kentucky in SEC Tournament play.
  • Thursday marked the first meeting between Gators and Wildcats in the league tournament since March 4, 2016.
  • Smith has scored in double figures in 23 of UF’s 24 games.
  • UF falls to 0-7 vs. AP Top 25 opponents this season.