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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

PHILADELPHIA - The UF women's basketball team had been here before.

The Gators had played well on the road in spurts and always let the victory slip through their fingers.

This time, with Temple gaining momentum and looking to erase a 16-point deficit early in the second half, UF held off the Owls for a 68-54 victory in its' final non-conference game Saturday afternoon.

The Gators, 11-4 and winners of seven straight, gained plenty of confidence as they head into their Southeastern Conference opener Thursday, having taken the first step to quieting notions that they can't achieve success on the road.

They did it without head coach Amanda Butler, who flew to her hometown of Mt. Juliet, Tenn., late Friday night to be with her sick grandmother.

Assistant coach Susie Gardner assumed the head coaching responsibilities in Butler's absence, and she tried to keep past failures on the road out of the players' thoughts.

"We tried to not make that a big deal for our players obviously," she said. "We looked at it more as keeping our winning streak healthy and then going into SEC play with momentum, which I think we did."

But the Gators did have guard Sha Brooks, and the Owls (7-9) never found much of an answer for her.

The junior went off for a season-high 23 points in just 29 minutes, shooting 6 of 18 from the floor and going 10 of 10 from the free-throw line.

Gardner challenged Brooks to play well in front of Temple coach and former WNBA star Dawn Staley.

"I told her almost in jest before the game, 'Listen, Dawn Staley is down there, one of the best players to ever play the game,'" Gardner said. "Make sure she knows who Sha Brooks is when you leave this court."

Assistant coach Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick watched game footage with Brooks earlier in the weekend and noticed she was settling for 3-pointers too often.

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The junior took the message to heart, showing glimpses of last season when she averaged more than 15 points per game on her way to being named to the All-SEC second team.

Brooks averaged just 10.1 points per game coming into Saturday's game and had scored less than 5 points in three contests this season, including the previous two.

"It was good to see Sha looking more confident, more like Sha, and attacking," Gardner said. "She's the best free-throw shooter in the SEC. If she can continually get fouled and go 10-for-10, we're going to have some success."

The Gators opened the game with a 13-1 run, keeping the Owls without a field goal until the 13:19 mark of the first half.

"My biggest fear tonight was not that they were prepared, but whether or not we would start strong," Gardner said. "I feel like it was important for us being on the road. Even though we didn't bring it up, they might have that in the back of our minds, that we can't let this slip away."

Temple would claw their way back into the game, scoring the last 5 points of the first half to cut the lead to 11.

While UF committed only 14 turnovers on the night, there was a stretch in the second half where Temple scored 6 straight points and seemed to gain momentum with their full-court press.

It was the moment where the Gators had crumbled in the past on the road, allowing the home team to keep gaining control and cutting down the lead.

Saturday was different, however, as Gardner called a timeout and reminded her team that they were winning.

She said she saw a different look in the team's eyes this time around, a confidence that hadn't been there in the past.

"I do remember saying we are still in control," Gardner said. "I told them don't play not to lose. We had had leads in the past and tried to just hang on. I said let's keep attacking."

The Gators stayed aggressive and held off the Owls' charge by trading baskets.

Brooks hit a 3-pointer with 3:25 remaining to put UF up by 17, which seemed to close the door.

"We faced adversity well," said senior guard Depree Bowden, who had 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting. "When they made a run, we came back and answered."

Brooks said the difference compared to the past three road losses was desire.

"We just wanted it more," Brooks said. "We went out and played hard, played for Coach Butler. We just played our A-game."

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