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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

COLUMBIA, S.C. - Take nothing for granted in Southeastern Conference play.

Despite leading by as many as 17 in the second half, UF (14-6, 3-2 SEC) found itself clawing and scrapping until the final buzzer in its 70-67 victory at South Carolina (11-9, 0-5 SEC) on Sunday.

In fact, the Gators were saved by the horn.

Gamecocks guard Jordan Jones connected on a potential game-tying 3-pointer from several feet behind the arc, but she didn't get it off before the clock hit zero.

Jones' shot would have forced overtime.

"I thought it counted," said UF guard Depree Bowden, who had 11 points on 5-of-16 shooting. "I didn't know (that it was late)."

South Carolina coach Susan Walvius added: "We got the shot we wanted a fraction of a second too late."

That final possession wasn't even the Gamecocks' best chance to win the game.

With 24 seconds remaining, they inbounded the ball on their offensive end of the floor and managed to get a wide-open 3-point look for guard Ebony Jones.

Her shot would've given the Gamecocks the lead, but it rimmed out.

The senior got her own offensive rebound and missed another short jumper, which was rebounded by UF forward Marshae Dotson.

"Although it did not appear as such, we were trying to keep them pushed out from the basket as much as we could and be there when they caught the ball," UF coach Amanda Butler said. "[Their shooters] were very impressive down the stretch - the way those kids not only stepped up but stepped up and hit in the most intense of moments."

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Dotson (16 points, 7 rebounds) came up big in the second half for the Gators, scoring all 9 of the team's points during a key seven-minute stretch.

The junior had just 4 points in the first half.

"That consistency and having that go-to person is just something you can just never underestimate from a coaching standpoint," Butler said. "She only got two shots in the first half. … We're sitting there looking at the stat sheet at halftime going, 'We've got to get the ball in her hands more.'"

Almost overshadowed by the dramatic end to the game was Sharielle Smith's career day. The sophomore forward had a personal-best 18 points.

17 of those came in the first half, keeping UF afloat as the rest of her team shot just 7 of 19 from the floor.

"We had a talk before we left Gainesville, and we were just talking about how good of a win this would be if we brought it home," Smith said. "I guess I had that in my mind, but I didn't really feel anything different than usual."

Her 6-of-7 shooting in the first half, including 3-for-3 from behind the arc, helped build a 33-20 halftime lead for the Gators.

South Carolina had problems getting into an offensive rhythm in the first half, shooting just 21.9 percent from the field and connecting on only one of its 10 shots from behind the 3-point line.

After UF scored the first 4 points in the second half, the tide began to change. The Gamecocks scored 13 unanswered to close the gap to 37-33.

From that point on, the margin would never be more than 9 points.

South Carolina trimmed the lead to as little as a single point but was never able to take the lead after the 17:12 mark of the first half.

Foul trouble became a key factor for both teams' post players. Dotson and Aneika Henry played many minutes with four fouls, and Smith had three.

But it was the Gamecocks' Demetress Adams and Ilona Burgrova that would end up fouling out.

Butler attributed this to composure.

"Our post players really played smart in those situations," she said. "We never stopped attacking. We just were doing with a lot of the right angles, so we weren't running over people and putting ourselves in the foul trouble they ended up with."

For the Gators, a loss in Columbia could've been disastrous coming on the heels of Thursday's 82-55 home blowout at the hands of Georgia.

Instead Butler saw the team take a step forward.

"It would've been very easy for us to still be pouting from the whipping we took Thursday," she said. "Or sit here and go 'Oh gosh, we had a 13-point lead' and start panicking or 'What happened?' We maintained composure and played smart. … Whenever you can get a road win then you've got to high five and go to the house and be happy with it."

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