Eleanna Christinaki is used to leading the Florida women's basketball team.
As a freshman last season, she was the team’s second-best scorer.
That trend continued in career-defining fashion Monday night.
Playing 36 minutes, Christinaki registered a career-high 29 points and nine rebounds in No. 19 Florida’s 72-61 victory over Tennessee Chattanooga.
“This is an NCAA Tournament game,” head coach Amanda Butler said, “and to beat an NCAA Tournament team on their home floor this early in the season … is a great indication that our team is growing in every single practice.”
Florida (2-0) wrestled control from the Mocs (1-1) early, largely thanks to the play of Christinaki. Starting her night with a jumper 65 seconds into the game, the guard notched 14 points in the first quarter alone, shooting 60 percent from the field.
The sophomore also made her presence felt off the ball, contributing three rebounds and two steals in the first 10 minutes of play as the Gators rushed out to a 23-13 lead.
“She created a lot of her offense too with her rebounding,” Butler said. “That’s something we’ve really been on her about the past few weeks.”
However, UF’s energy was quickly snuffed out and stymied by a Chattanooga team playing in front of its home crowd for the first time in series history.
Outscoring the Gators 15-12 in the second quarter, the Mocs cut the deficit to seven, stripping momentum from the Gators with a buzzer-beating three-pointer from Shelbie Davenport. Chelsey Shumpert led the Chattanooga offense, scoring eight points on 3-of-4 shooting.
Florida needed an answer — with a crowd of nearly 2,500 at the McKenzie Arena making its presence felt, the Gators needed to replicate their first-quarter effort.
Senior forward Jasmine Joyner opened the second half with a layup for the Mocs. Freshman guard Lakelyn Bouldin flushed a three-pointer 32 seconds later, forcing Butler to take an early timeout.
But the Mocs continued to attack in waves powered by their long-range shooting. Going 3-for-7 from three-point range in the quarter, Chattanooga trimmed Florida’s lead to one by the end of the frame.
The Gators needed an answer. As the stadium buzzed with noise, Florida sought to find its composure.
“We’ve spent a lot of time really trying to develop and reinforce our mental toughness,” Butler said. “(Just to) have faith in our preparation and not let the fear of losing become a factor.”
That faith paid off.
Despite a rocky start, UF kept its cool. After allowing Keiana Gilbert to tie the game at 56, the Gators ripped a 16-5 run to close out, shooting 80 percent from the field throughout the quarter.
Christinaki rediscovered her scoring touch. After posting eight points through the second and third quarters, she registered seven in the game’s final 10 minutes, sparking her team’s run with her second three of the game.
“We beat a great team today,” Butler said.
“I’m very, very proud of our effort. This is a tough place to play.”
A radio broadcast contributed to this report.
UF guard Eleanna Christinaki goes for a layup during Florida's 53-45 win against LSU on Jan. 17, 2016, in the O'Connell Center.