JACKSONVILLE — Heading into Friday’s Southeastern Conference Tournament matchup, UF was poised to avenge its first-round, 22-point loss in last year’s conference tournament.
Things didn’t go as planned.
In one of Florida’s worst performances of the season, the Gators were thoroughly demolished 92-69 by Kentucky in the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena and were eliminated from the tournament.
The 23-point loss margin was worse than last year’s, despite UF going into the game with nine more wins than it had a year ago.
“We’re obviously terribly disappointed in the way that we played,” UF coach Amanda Butler said after the game.
With four three-pointers to start the game, Florida established early momentum. But that momentum would swing UK’s way in a hurry.
While Florida led by as many as 10 in the first quarter, Kentucky took the lead halfway through the second. From there, the Wildcats went beyond merely stepping on the accelerator — they floored it.
By the end of the second quarter, the Wildcats were already up by 13. By the end of the third, their lead was 21. And when the game ended, the 23-point deficit turned into Florida’s worst loss of the season.
“We came out and threw the first punch,” redshirt senior Carlie Needles said. “But I feel like once they got back up and went on their run, we didn’t really answer to them.”
The game was perhaps best summed up by the conclusion of the third quarter.
Down 70-49, junior guard Simone Westbrook drove into the paint for the period’s last shot. Wide-open near the rim, she attempted a layup from the right side of the hoop. It hit the right side of the rim, then the left side of the rim, then fell to the floor.
Watching the ball fall as the buzzer sounded accurately portrayed the tone of the game for Florida, as hope turned to disappointment.
Butler attributes UF’s epic second quarter collapse — during which they were outscored by 20 points — to trying to play a style that wasn’t them.
“I think we played a little too much individual basketball in that quarter,” Butler said. “We gave them the ball back too quickly, we weren’t very good in transition, just didn’t play a very disciplined game in terms of the things that we do.”
But aside from Florida’s own miscues, Kentucky was just flat-out hard to stop.
Butler noted her disappointment in her team’s defense, which made it easy for the Wildcats to score at times.
Kentucky’s field-goal percentage (48.6 percent) was a result of five Wildcats scoring in double figures, including leading-scorer Makayla Epps, who had 22.
“I feel like once Kentucky gets out in transition, it’s off to the races,” Epps said. “And it’s hard to stop us in transition.”
Florida’s leading scorer was Needles, whose 15 points all came from three-point range. Aside from Needles, though, only two other Gators reached double figures in junior Ronni Williams (10) and freshman Eleanna Christinaki (12).
The only bright side for the Gators was that, unlike last year, they have the NCAA Tournament to look forward to. With brackets set to be released on March 14, and games scheduled to begin on the 18th, Butler was — albeit somewhat jokingly — hopeful that whoever Florida gets matched up with, the opponent won’t know the Gators as well as SEC opponents do.
“I hope so,” she said. “That sounds good.”
Florida's Ronni Williams shoots the ball during UF's 92-69 loss to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament on March 4, 2016, in the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena.