The UF women's basketball team continues to feel the growing pains of a team that finished 9-22 last season.
The Gators got another chance Thursday night to establish themselves in the top half of the Southeastern Conference - and just couldn't get it done.
Vanderbilt (15-6, 4-2 SEC) simply had too much size in the post, and UF (14-7, 3-3 SEC) could not convert at key junctures, so the Commodores walked away with a 66-56 victory Thursday night.
UF (42.6 percent) shot just a tad better than the Commodores (42.2 percent) but could not overcome losing the rebounding battle (40-35), committing more turnovers (23 to 18) and dreadful 3-point shooting (11.1 percent).
Gators coach Amanda Butler felt despite the statistics, her team could have won this game, but they stopped believing they would.
"We really have to believe that we are supposed to beat some of these teams that are in the top of our league," Butler said. "There was a moment where we didn't feel like we were supposed to win. Vanderbilt seized that moment, and that's something that just can't happen."
It didn't help that the Commodores had a dominating post presence for which the Gators had no answer.
Vanderbilt center Liz Sherwood came off the bench to score a game-high 20 points and added 12 rebounds. The 6-foot-4 two-time reigning SEC Sixth Woman of the Year controlled the second half, and Vanderbilt's offense became looking to pound it into Sherwood on every offensive possession.
"It didn't matter who was in there (guarding Sherwood)," Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. "We were running stuff to Liz, and she was confident and going strong to the basket."
UF tried a couple of different things to stop the senior, including a 2-3 zone, and had both Marshae Dotson and Aneika Henry match up with her in man-to-man defense. But Sherwood continued to find a way to get one-on-one situations down on the low block and connected on 9 of her 17 shots.
"They didn't double Liz, and when she got them buried, they couldn't do anything but go one-on-one," Balcomb said. "Liz is very good one-and one. She generally sees double- and triple-teams and everybody packs it in. … They went with the philosophy of pressuring our guards and I thought they did a great job at it. Then we had to depend on Liz instead of our 3-point shooting."
Butler knew Sherwood would get her points but was frustrated with the many putbacks she got after missed shots.
"The goal of (Balcomb's) offense is to get Liz Sherwood one-on-one on the low block," she said. "Certainly we know that in some circumstances we couldn't handle her all alone on the low block. The points where they entered the ball in and she scored are easier to accept than the second chances."
Dotson put it more plainly.
"She's a big girl," she said. "She was bigger than most of our post players."
The Commodores got two other big offensive contributions - one from someone they expected and another from someone unexpected off their bench. Christina Wirth averaged 13.2 points per game entering Thursday's contest, and lived up to the expectations, pumping in 15 points and six rebounds. Perhaps more surprising was sophomore guard Jessica Mooney, who averages just 7.7 points per game but tied her career high with 16 points against the Gators.
UF had just one player finish in double figures - Dotson (16 points, 6 rebounds).
It looked like this game would be a blowout similar to the Gators' Jan. 24 affair against Georgia.
Vanderbilt's zone defense pressured the UF guards on the perimeter, and Gators had difficulty running their offense or even getting the ball within the 3-point line. They settled for ill-advised jump shots and started just 1 of 7 from the field with five turnovers in the first seven minutes, allowing the Commodores to open up a 23-10 lead with 8:43 left in the first half.
Then the Gators finally found an offensive flow and rattled off 11 straight points to draw within 2, and entered halftime trailing just 30-25.
UF started well after the break and tied the game for the first time at the 15:35 mark. The Commodores would answer with 6 straight points, and the Gators never ended up taking the lead the entire game.
Now, they must rebound Sunday when No. 8 LSU comes to town.
Butler said her team knows they can beat the Tigers but can't give up at critical moments.
"You've got to believe it more than your body telling you that you're tired or being upset about a player, like Liz Sherwood dominating a certain sequence of the game," she said. "Those things are going to happen and you've still got to believe it in spite of those things. … We've got to quit talking about it and do it. Walk the talk."