The Florida Gators women’s basketball team lost another game the team was favored to win, on its home court, and in the team’s own 24th annual Gator Holiday Classic championship game.
Eastern Washington – a school 2,730 miles away from the University of Florida – left Cheney, Washington, this weekend for rainy Gainesville and came out as tournament victors, upending the favored Gators 67-56 on Monday afternoon in the O’Connell Center.
While Florida (7-5) was able to avoid the slow starts the team has shown recently, the Gators instead blew a 10-point first-half lead and never recovered. Up 19-9 in the opening minutes, the Gators were unable to defend Eagles guard Lexie Nelson, who exploded for 28 points on lethal three-point shooting a day removed from going 0-for-6 from beyond the arc.
Coach Amanda Butler insisted, however, that Florida (7-5) knew Nelson could shoot – the only problem was the hot-blooded guard had the toughness to keep shooting and find her form even if things didn’t go her way in Sunday’s 55-42 win over Georgia Southern to earn a place in Monday’s championship game.
“We weren’t surprised at all,” Butler said, referring to the team’s recognition of Nelson’s shooting ability. “We talked a lot about her as a shooter and her capabilities. She has taken more threes on the year than Carlie [Needles]. We just didn’t do a very good job of being aware, or talking and communicating and closing out tough on her.”
The Gators outrebounded the Eagles, and Florida’s bench outscored the Eastern Washington (7-4) bench by a considerable 32-9 margin, but it wasn’t enough as Florida simply couldn’t stop Eastern Washington long enough to make a comeback.
Antoinette Bannister was quick to concur that the team did know that Nelson was a good three-point shooter, evidenced by the 7-for-13 performance from downtown she used to conquer the Gators. But her game wasn’t unbeatable – and Bannister knows the team can stop performances like Nelson’s from happening against them if they play with more grit and toughness.
“It was very frustrating, we just didn’t play tough enough,” Bannister said. “I think it was a lack of awareness with knowing where (Nelson) was. We lost her a lot of times; that was very frustrating.“
Bannister herself was able to get hot from the field and scored 11 points for Florida, another strong performance for the Jacksonville native who scored in double digits for the second straight game.
January Miller, who led the Gators in scoring on Sunday with 14 points, got into early foul trouble against Eastern Washington, picking up two in the first four minutes. She was limited to just 11 minutes against the Eagles, and the early energy Miller displayed in her brief spurts was seemingly missed as Florida faded down the stretch.
Ultimately, the Gators believe they should win all of their home games, especially against arguably lesser opponents like Eastern Washington and Wisconsin who have upended Florida on their home court.
Bannister – who was named to the All-Tournament team along with Nelson - emphasized that the team needs to capitalize on its home court advantage, and win these easier games before Florida heads into play against a tough Southeastern Conference schedule beginning the first Friday of 2015 against LSU at home.
“It’s our home court, and it’s our tournament,” Bannister said. “It’s just very depressing and deflating. It just sucks that we didn’t defend our home court tonight.”
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Antoinette Bannister attempts a jump shot during Florida's season-opening win against Jacksonville.