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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

You could see it in their faces. The Gators didn't want to let this one slip away.

Not after letting Vanderbilt pull away for a 10-point win a week ago.

Not after letting No. 8 LSU dominate all but the last five minutes of Sunday's game.

So when the final buzzer sounded after UF's 73-67 win, Jennifer Mossor ran and bumped chests with Susan Yenser, the team smiled and gave each other high-fives in a happier-than-usual postgame huddle at midcourt, and UF coach Amanda Butler clapped her hands in tandem with the fans as she waited for her postgame radio show.

Displaying an intensity and the fire of a team upset with itself after losing two straight, the Gators refused to let Auburn steal this win from them.

Having lost its last three in the O'Connell Center, including two blowouts, UF (15-8, 4-4 Southeastern Conference) held off Auburn (15-7, 3-4 SEC) behind 61.5-percent shooting in the second half.

Guard Sha Brooks scored 16 points and added five rebounds and four steals. The junior hit just 3 of 14 shots from the field but went 8 for 8 from the free-throw line, including four in the final minute to seal the victory.

"The thing that is so amazing about Sha's play is the things she's giving us that don't have anything to do with if she's shooting well or if she's not shooting well," Butler said. "Our team's composure at the end of the game was a reflection of Sha having the ball in her hands and everybody knowing that everything was going to be OK. That's something you can never underestimate."

The Gators scored 15 straight points during a period of 3:57, encompassing the end of the first half and beginning of the second, to open up a 10-point advantage they would not lose.

"I thought that was the ballgame right there," Auburn coach Nell Fortner said. "Coming out slow to start the second half, it's been a little bit of a problem of ours. It got us tonight. Those are hard things to recover when you're playing a team like Florida, and you know it's going to be a close game and go down to the wire. Ten down is hard to recover from."

The Tigers almost did come back behind 30 points and nine rebounds from guard DeWanna Bonner, one shy of the junior's career high. It was the third 30-point game the Gators surrendered this season.

Auburn cut the lead to 3 on three separate occasions in the final two minutes, but UF was able to answer each time.

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Butler said she told her team after the game, "We were treating her like it was her birthday today and just giving her points left and right."

Fortner wished Bonner's effort would have been enough.

"That's pretty typical of her," Fortner said. "She can get you 30 on any given night. I just wish I'd had a little more help for her tonight. … I thought she did as much as she could to help us win this ballgame. You've got to have other players help, and we just didn't get enough help tonight."

Sophomore guard Jennifer Mossor added a team-high 17 points off the bench, including three momentum-swinging 3-pointers in the second half. She shot 7 of 10 from the floor, and her postgame joy was hard to miss.

"I just hit that first 3 in the second half, and it just gave me confidence to keep shooting," Mossor said, smiling throughout. "Coach was telling me to shoot it. I did. It felt good so I just keep shooting."

This one started ugly, as the two teams combined to make five of their first 22 shots.

After slow starts in their last two games led to big deficits, the Gators came out with a lot of intensity on the defensive end Thursday. UF held Auburn to 28.6 percent shooting and forced the Tigers to commit six turnovers. Auburn's 26 points is the second-lowest total UF has allowed in a half of a SEC game this season.

Unfortunately for the Gators, they didn't do much to use this to their advantage. UF shot just 34.6 percent and turned the ball over eight times. The Gators' leading scorer, Marshae Dotson, played only seven minutes and went scoreless in the first half due to foul trouble. Dotson picked up her third foul at the 5:50 mark, which sent her to the bench until the start of the second half. Despite missing Dotson, UF scored the last 6 points before halftime to take a 27-26 lead into the break.

UF then scored 9 straight points after intermission, helped by two Auburn turnovers and 4 points from Dotson, who would finish the game with 11 and added seven rebounds.

"To go in at halftime, with Marshae having zero points, I think is a credit to everyone else stepping up their game in different ways," Butler said. "There were just a few tweaks to make, but it really was a lot of the intangibles. We've got to start this half up on our toes and get them back on their heels and throw the first punch."

UF will look to ride the momentum of this game into Sunday's road contest at Mississippi State. The Gators can't look past the Bulldogs (14-9, 2-6 SEC), a team that led by 7 at halftime against No. 2 Tennessee at home Thursday, before falling to the Volunteers 87-69.

"You've got to generate your own momentum," Butler said. "You've got to generate your own confidence. A win like this certainly puts us in that position."

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