After trailing by as much as 17 points, star guard Kiara Smith made her eighth basket of the night in transition to bring the Gators within six points of the lead.
But Alabama knocked down five clutch free throws to clinch a 77-70 win Thursday night at the O’Connell Center.
In Florida’s second straight game without star guard Lavender Briggs, who will miss the rest of the season due to a lingering knee injury, UF’s surrounding cast struggled to fill her void in its ninth SEC loss this season.
Barring Smith, who played the entire game and matched her career-high 27 points, the Gators shot under 33% from the field. Sophomore forward Faith Dut was the only other Gator to score double digits with 11 points. She has averaged fewer than 6 points per game.
Guards Brynn Farrell and Kristina Moore stepped up, too, each providing seven points off the bench.
“I liked Faith’s [Dut] effort tonight...Brynn [Farrell] gave us some good minutes,” head coach Cam Newbauer said.
Guard Nina Rickards, who leads the team in rebounds, was a force on the glass, collecting nine boards. But the sophomore produced a rather inefficient offensive performance, shooting 4-12 from the field and 0-3 from three-point range.
Guard Danielle Rainey, who hit six threes en route to a career-high 20 points Monday night, also struggled, shooting just 1-8 from the floor.
After jumping out to a 12-4 lead halfway through the first quarter, Alabama continued to shoot the lights out, hitting two more threes. They finished the quarter 5-9 from beyond the arc.
Smith opened the second quarter hot and poured in the first seven Florida points. But four easy Crimson Tide layups and Alabama forward Jasmine Walker’s first three pointer of the game extended Alabama’s lead to 31-22.
Farrell hit a wing three pointer out of a television timeout before Rickards converted an and-one to cut Florida’s deficit to one. Walker made her fourth bucket of the quarter on the ensuing possession before sinking a turnaround fadeaway jumper to cap off an 11-point second quarter.
“Jasmine Walker is right there with Rhyne Howard as player of the year in the conference,” Newbauer said. “She just does so much for her team.”
Out of the half, Walker picked up right where she left off, hitting a buzzer-beating three to complete another double-digit scoring quarter and put Alabama up 11 points entering the final quarter.
After being outscored during the first three quarters, Florida prevailed in the fourth by four points.
“We keep talking about being the best version of ourselves each possession, and that’s what they’re doing,” Newbauer said. “That’s competitive maturity.”
In addition to Rainey’s and Dut’s five-point quarters, seven more Smith points helped the Gators back within single digits of the lead before Alabama hit game-clinching free throws down the stretch to secure the victory.
With only two games left until the SEC Tournament, Florida will travel to Columbia to face Missouri before closing the regular season a week later at home versus No. 22 Georgia. Sunday’s tip-off is scheduled for 2 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.