Just over a minute into the third quarter, South Carolina forward A’ja Wilson mirrored her teammates’ ball movement across the floor as she shuffled from one side of the paint to the other. Guard Doniyah Cliney received a pass and immediately spotted Wilson posting up just to the right of the lane. With a lob into Wilson, Florida forward Paulina Hersler abandoned her inside position to take a swipe at the ball.
Hersler missed. Wilson’s layup didn’t.
Delicia Washington plays like a cheetah on a sugar rush.
The play gave the Gamecocks a lead they wouldn’t give up in a 64-57 win over the Gators on Sunday afternoon in Columbia, South Carolina. It was a moment indicative of the kind of day Florida would experience trying to guard the 2017 SEC Player of the Year.
Florida’s defensive scheme emphasized denying Wilson the ball. In the first half, there were four — sometimes five — Gators defenders surrounding her in the paint, daring other Gamecocks players to beat them instead.
“Is it [ESPN anchor] Kenny Mayne that said, ‘You can’t stop them, you can only hope to contain them?’” UF coach Cameron Newbauer said. “We wanted to disrupt her, make her uncomfortable.”
The overwhelming attention she received hardly slowed her down. Standing 2 inches taller than both Gators forwards, Wilson used her size and athleticism to post up and spin around defenders. She ended the afternoon with a double-double, putting up 22 points while grabbing 11 rebounds. Wilson also served as a deterrent inside for Florida’s offense, recording three blocks.
The Gators (10-15, 2-10 SEC) played a ranked opponent for the fifth consecutive game and, once again, kept it close throughout. Florida’s defense didn’t allow South Carolina (20-5, 9-3 SEC) to make a field goal in the second quarter until the 3:25 mark of the period. Over that span, UF built a 10-point lead and appeared to be in control.
However, the Gamecocks battled their way back to tie the game 30-30 at halftime. Guard Delicia Washington led all Gators scorers in the first half, putting up eight points on 3-of-8 shooting.
Florida guard Funda Nakkasoglu came out in the second half red hot. The junior transfer shot 50 percent from the field for eight points while grabbing a steal and two rebounds in the third quarter. Her two three-pointers in the frame matched her first-half production from beyond the arc.
Despite Nakkasoglu’s performance from three-point range — finishing the day 5 for 8 —her teammates couldn’t capitalize from distance, shooting 4 of 21.
With his first season coaching in the SEC coming to a close, Newbauer said his players have bought into his mentality.
“Every day is a challenge,” Newbauer said. “And our team is taking it that way. In this league, you have to do that.”
The Gators wrap up a six-game stretch playing against ranked opponents on Thursday at 8 p.m. when they travel to College Station to take on Texas A&M.
A video from floridagators.com contributed to this report.
Follow Morgan McMullen on Twitter @MorganMcMuffin and contact him at [email protected]