Florida’s season opener was a lot like a sandwich.
UF was the bread, holding the game’s ends together by starting and finishing well.
Unfortunately for them, though, Temple was the all-important meat in the middle, as the Owls overpowered the Gators like pastrami on white.
In the end, Temple’s dominance in the second and third quarters was too much to overcome as Florida fell 97-91 on Friday in Philadelphia.
“There was great fight and really important contributions from people that we needed to play well,” coach Amanda Butler said. “When you’ve got a combined 56 free throws shot in a ball game, that’s really what the difference was, was free throws. We’ve got to adjust, we’ve got to be more disciplined and adjust to the way that is influencing outcomes.”
Now that games are divided into quarters rather than halves, with each quarter allowing for five fouls, more free throws are inevitable. UF shot just 57.1 percent from the line.
Florida started off fast, as the Gators went 9-for-15 in the first quarter. However, they went a dismal 2-for-8 from the charity stripe.
Conversely, Temple opened up ice cold from the field in the first quarter, shooting just 25 percent, but went a solid 11-of-14 from the free throw line.
Florida led 22-19 heading into the second quarter, but Temple was able to swing the momentum before halftime. Thanks to huge performances from Owl guards Alliya Butts and Feyonda Fitzgerald, who had 17 points apiece in the first half alone, Temple went into the locker room leading Florida 50-40.
Temple’s lead grew in the third, but the momentum swung back the Gators’ way for a brief time courtesy of Cassie Peoples, Ty Fleming and Simone Westbrook.
Peoples had a hot hand on the offensive side, knocking down two threes and a long jumper in a span of less than two minutes.
Westbrook played a possessed style of offense, driving to the basket and knocking down free throws.
And Fleming, who played with Westbrook last season in junior college, turned the game into a block party on the defensive end.
Peoples would end up leading UF with 18 points with Westbrook right behind her with 14.
But going into the fourth, Temple had built a powerful 15-point lead.
The Gators were able to claw their way back into the game courtesy of the JUCO tandem once again.
Westbrook scored eight points to go with three defensive rebounds, two assists and a steal all in the fourth quarter. Fleming didn’t have a huge quarter statistically, but her size and hustle contributed to the Gators’ comeback.
“It was a huge impact. I mean, that’s why they’re Gators. That’s why we recruited them, for them to make big-time plays,” Butler said of the duo.
“Both of them I just thought gave us courageous minutes that really put us in position. iIf we had a few things go differently… maybe we’re having a different conversation right now.”
The Gators trimmed what had ballooned into a 20-point Owl lead near the beginning of the fourth quarter into a one-possession game at 89-92 with 24 seconds left.
Florida would never get a tying shot off, as Temple sunk a few free throws and sent the Gators back to Gainesville at 0-1.
Noticeably absent from the game in the final minutes were Ronni Williams and January Miller, who fouled out with 7:45 and :24, respectively.
Williams was UF’s leading scorer a season ago and Miller has the most career points of any current Gator, so naturally, Butler wasn’t pleased with them being gone at crunch time.
“We had Ronni in foul trouble from the beginning,” she said.
“We need them to be on the floor for more than 14 and 11 minutes.”
With the new rule changes, Florida will have to work on staying out of foul trouble and playing a more consistent game, lest they once again end up as the bread of a losing sandwich.
Things don’t get easier for the Gators, because while they do return home for their next game, they’ll find a seventh-ranked Florida State team waiting for them on Monday night in the O’Connell Center. Game time is set for 5:30 p.m.
A radio broadcast contributed to this report.
Follow Ethan Bauer on Twitter @ebaueri
UF point guard Cassie Peoples dribbles during Florida's 64-56 loss to Tennessee on Feb. 8, 2015, in the O'Connell Center.