After two games in as many days, fifth-seeded Florida was bounced from the Southeastern Conference Tournament by No. 12 Kentucky on Friday following a strong showing against Mississippi State on Thursday.
After earning a first-round bye, the Gators faced off against the Bulldogs for the second time this season.
The first time the teams met — in Gainesville on Jan. 2. — Florida came out with an 82-72 win.
The results were similar the second time around, with the Gators winning again on Thursday, 71-67.
A strong first half propelled Florida to victory, thanks to a 59.3 percent shooting effort in the half, not to mention outscoring Mississippi State 22-8 in the paint.
The Bulldogs rallied back in the second half, but thanks to the efforts of senior Jaterra Bonds and redshirt junior Kayla Lewis, the Gators held on to advance to the quarterfinals.
Lewis recorded 17 points, six boards and five blocks against Mississippi State.
“I think that Kayla’s athleticism is what you see because that’s the most obvious thing,” coach Amanda Butler said. “That’s much more about Kayla’s desire, the plays that she made. That’s what makes me proud of those numbers. It’s not, ‘Can she jump higher than someone or is she stronger than someone?’ It’s about, ‘I’m not going to be denied, I’m not going to let you score on this.’ It comes from a positive, team-oriented place.”
The Gators didn’t have much time to relish in their win against the Bulldogs, as a matchup against the Wildcats in the quarterfinals was a mere 24 hours later.
Florida enjoyed success against Kentucky in the regular season, winning both contests 83-73 and 86-80 in Lexington, Ky., and Gainesville, respectively.
Fortunately for the Wildcats, the SEC Tournament offered another chance for redemption, and they took advantage of it despite a strong first half by the Gators.
Florida went 5 for 10 from beyond the arc, and Lewis had another strong showing, scoring a team-high 11 points in the half.
Unfortunately for the Gators, there was an extra 20 minutes they had to play.
After entering halftime down by seven with the score 36-29, the Wildcats stormed back.
With 8:35 remaining in the game, Florida lost its lead and never regained it, despite later tying the game at 70 with only 1:29 remaining on the clock.
Florida saw its lead dwindle away thanks to a strong rebounding effort from Kentucky, who won by five points in the 75-70 affair.
The Wildcats doubled up the Gators in offensive boards, 18-9.
Against Mississippi State, Florida was also badly outrebounded on the offensive side, but the Bulldogs’ inability to capitalize in the paint allowed the Gators to hang on.
“The rebounding battle, one of our goals is to neutralize that,” Butler said. “We’re trying to always scratch around and make plays off the boards as much as we can. We didn’t do a good job with that. In the second half, that was really what was keeping them afloat. I thought we were playing great basketball, but kept giving them second chances. A good team’s going to take advantage of that.”
Redshirt sophomore Cassie Peoples was one player in particular that had an uncharacteristically strong offensive performance in the SEC Tournament. Peoples struggled in conference play, shooting 17.5 percent from three-point range, 32.3 percent from the field and averaging 8.9 points per contest.
In the two tournament games, she averaged 12 points and went 7 for 11 from distance, not to mention draining 10 of her 20 field goals.
“I pretty much have the same mindset every game,” Peoples said, “hit open shots that I'm given.”
Florida now awaits its fate as to whether it will be seeded in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2011-2012 season and will learn its standing on March 17.
Follow Gordon Streisand on Twitter @GordonStreisand
Cassie Peoples drives to the net during Florida’s loss to Missouri on Feb. 20 in the O’Connell Center. Peoples averaged 8.9 points per game at the SEC Tournament.