After a late comeback scare by Auburn, Florida guard Kiara Smith delivered a pair of clutch free throws and an exhilarating, fast-break layup down the stretch of the fourth quarter to tame the Tigers and secure the Gators’ first conference win of the season.
Florida bounced back at the O’Connell Center Sunday afternoon for the first time since Dec. 21. The Gators beat the Auburn Tigers 68-54 after losing five consecutive conference games.
Coach Cam Newbauer called the Gators’ first conference win the best day in the season.
Florida got off to a hot start, taking an early 11-0 lead. It took Auburn nealy five minutes and nine field goal attempts to finally score its first basket. After scoring through contact on the break, Smith’s free throw gave the Gators a 16-3 advantage with slightly more than three minutes left in the first quarter.
With under a minute remaining in the first, Florida guard Yasmeen Chang, who came off the bench, drilled a three pointer to extend the Gators’ lead to 21-8. Smith led the way for the Gators, notching eight points and five rebounds. Meanwhile, Auburn finished the quarter shooting just 2-15 from the field.
Auburn began the second quarter on a 7-0 run, cutting Florida’s lead in half. However, the Gators settled in defensively and limited Auburn to only five points over the first half’s final eight minutes.
Florida took a commanding 35-21 lead into the locker room behind Smith’s double-double. The redshirt senior scored 14 points and collected 11 boards in the first half. Smith was a force on the defensive end, too, adding four steals.
Meanwhile, Florida guard Lavender Briggs, who scored a career-high 41 points Thursday against Arkansas, ended the half with 11 points. Auburn forward Unique Thompson and guard Honesty Scott-Grayson carried the Tigers, combining for 15 of Auburn’s 21 first-half points.
More than four minutes into the second half, Florida took its largest lead of the game after Smith’s layup and Briggs’ second three pointer extended the UF lead to 18 points. Auburn quickly responded, however, scoring the next eight points in under two minutes, before another Smith layup halted Auburn’s momentum.
The fourth quarter began with several back-and-forth baskets until Auburn went on a 7-0 run. After Florida guard Nina Rickards’ three pointer snapped Auburn’s streak. The Gators then took their double-digit lead back with about five minutes remaining.
Scott-Grayson answered with four more quick points to cut Florida’s lead to single digits before the Gators held their own defensively. Following key defensive stops, the Gators managed to take a 66-53 lead with a minute left because of Smith’s fast-break layup that capped off a five-point Florida run.
Smith finished the game with 22 points and a season-high 13 rebounds. Smith shot 9-14 from the field, raising her season field-goal percentage to 49.4%. Newbauer praised Smith’s performance after the game.
“Kiki Smith continues to be Kiki Smith,” Newbauer said. “Such a high motor and high energy and just impacts the games in so many ways.”
Briggs followed up her historic game against Arkansas with an 18-point effort. Auburn’s Scott-Grayson ended the game with a team-high 18 points, while Thompson recorded 14 points and rebounds.
The key to Florida’s victory was its defense, Newbauer said. The Gators limited Auburn to less than 28% from the field.
“We came out very aggressively from a defensive standpoint,” Newbauer said. “That sparked most of our offense today. We needed that today.”
The Gators will carry their momentum into Nashville Thursday as they take on the Vanderbilt Commodores in a rescheduled matchup at 2 p.m. The game can be streamed on SEC+ Network.
Contact Griffin Foll at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @GriffinFoll
Griffin Foll is a sophomore at UF studying journalism sports and media. He is one of The Alligator's women’s basketball beat writers. Griffin is also a UF softball beat reporter for ChompTalk.com and contributes weekly articles for ESPN Gainesville.