After battling back from a 16-point deficit, Florida corralled an offensive rebound and dished the ball to guard Danielle Rainey, who knocked down her fifth three-pointer of the night and clawed her team back to a one-possession ball game.
But Kentucky's upperclassmen thrived in crunch time, as senior Chasity Patterson connected from distance and junor Rhyne Howard converted an old-fashioned three-point play. UK’s experienced spark ignited a 14-3 run that saw the Wildcats escape as narrow victors.
In Florida’s 88-80 loss Monday night, Rainey and sophomore guard Nina Rickards picked up the slack after star guard Lavender Briggs was ruled out for the rest of the season due to lingering knee injury.
Briggs, who ranks No. 2 in the SEC in scoring with 21.8 points per game carried the Gators for most of the season, including her career-high 41-point performance against Arkansas.
“We don't have Lav [Briggs], but we have enough...we can stay connected and become who we are without Lav,” Newbauer said. “She’s still going to have a presence and impact our game every day with who she is.”
Star guard Kiara Smith led the Gators with 23 points while recording her sixth double-double season. Florida guards Danielle Rainey and Nina Rickards elevated their offensive production to a new level, each scoring career-highs.
“Even though we didn’t get the dub, I saw a different team tonight,” Rainey said. “Everything was just different. The vibe, energy, the competitiveness.”
Rainey, who averages just four points per game, dropped a career-high 20 points on 6-11 shooting from beyond the arc. Rickards, who averages under seven points and scored only three points in her last two games, poured in 19 and collected 10 boards to notch her second double-double of the season.
With under a minute into the first quarter, back-to-back Kentucky threes opened up the scoring. Rickards answered with a jumper, and the Gators made two quick layups to tie the game.
After two Kentucky baskets gave the Wildcats a 10-6 advantage, Rainey drained a corner three, which Kentucky forward KeKe McKinney reciprocated.
Down 13-9, Florida tied the game following a pair of layups made by freshman forward Faith Dut. A Kentucky layup broke the tie again before Florida forward Floor Toonders hit a layup to bring the game to 15. The opening quarter finished with seesawing possessions that ended in a Kentucky layup.
Rainey made two more threes to open the second quarter and granted the Gators a 25-21 lead. Kentucky responded with a jumper before a pair of Rainey free throws led to an easy Rickards layup that extended Florida’s lead to 29-23.
After a Kentucky jumper and three pointer closed the gap, freshman Florida guard Brynn Farrell hit consecutive three pointers to give the Gators breathing room. Junior Kentucky guard Rhyne Howard hit a three to cut the deficit to 37-35.
Newbauer called Howard, who finished the game with 31 points and nine boards, the “national player of the year.”
Following Smith’s and-one and Toonders’ put-back layup, Kentucky closed the half on a 10-0 tear, taking a 47-42 lead entering the half.
After Smith opened the second half scoring with a free throw, Kentucky scored the next seven points to take a 54-43 lead. Rickards responded with a layup that cut Kentucky’s lead to single digits.
The Wildcats wasted no time pouring it on in the second half. Kentucky scored 16 of the first 21 points due to Howard’s 13-point third quarter. A Rickards jumper and Smith layup temporarily silenced the Wildcats before Kentucky scored the next five points to take its largest lead of the night.
Trailing 68-52, Florida fought back with several baskets, including a Smith fast-break layup that cut the deficit to 11 points heading into the fourth.
Following another Rainey three-pointer minutes into the final quarter, back-and-forth possessions led to a nine-point Kentucky run. Smith made a layup and a pair of free throws before Rainey sank one last three in garbage time.
With just three regular-season games left until the SEC Tournament, Florida will prepare for Thursday’s home matchup against Alabama. Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m. and will air 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.