At the start of the third quarter, Florida guard Kiara Smith swiftfully landed a left-handed floater. Minutes later, she repeated the play spectacularly after she cut to the basket from the right.
She continued to carve the Auburn defense after scoring a three seconds later.
Florida had two options Wednesday afternoon: win or go home. Smith wanted a win.
UF vanquished loss-ridden Auburn 69-62 in the first game of the SEC Tournament in Greenville, South Carolina.
The Gators hunted for blood early on. Guard Kristina Moore tried to block a pass, her elbow met Auburn guard Honesty Scott-Grayson’s face. The Tigers’ lead scorer lasted six minutes on the court.
The first quarter kicked off with a five-point Auburn run that could bring any Gator fan to jitter. A Smith jumper and guard Nina Rickards three quelled any early fears and proved viewers were in for a close fight.
As the Gators warmed up, the Tigers followed. But Florida secured its first lead through a guard Danielle Rainey three built after a guard Jordyn Merritt layup and Rickards jumper. Auburn responded with layups to kill the Gators’ advantage, but a Smith jumper and Dut layup tied 16-16.
At the start of the second, Scott-Grayson returned with tape above her eye. And Auburn rained two buckets.
The Gators responded, and then two sets of Moore free throws gave Florida its second lead of the game — one it contained until the halftime buzzer echoed through Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
Florida then wrapped their lead and placed a bow on top of it with two Smith jumpers, Moore free throws and forward Floor Toonders bucket. The quarter ended with a one-point advantage that the Gators nurtured through a fierce run in the third.
Merritt, Dut, Rickards and Rainey contributed to the Gators’ 10 bucket sprint in the third. The Tigers tried to claw back at Florida’s 16-point rush with a little over a minute left in the third. Two Auburn layups and threes let the Tigers trail by eight.
When no one thought Smith could top her quarter-clinching floaters, a smooth layup marked her 1,000th career point and ended a 12-0 Auburn dash.
And when it looked like Florida scored its momentum back, it allowed the Tigers 12 more points. The run capped after a Moore three tied the game 57-57. Rainey poured in back-to-back threes before a Rickards layup and a pair of Smith free throws cemented a nine-point advantage.
Auburn answered with a three that couldn't curb Florida’s energy. The game wrapped up just as it started — with a Smith bucket that destroyed Auburn’s hope for a conference win.
Smith reflected on the game with her voice notably shaking from excitement under her face mask. Her team, she said, stepped up for a great game — a sentiment Head coach Cam Newbauer shared.
“Our bench was very energized and engaged,” he said.
Newbauer, who appeared refreshed and energized, also commented on Smith’s performance.
“She took her in when we needed her, especially defensively,” he said. “We don't give her enough credit defensively. I’m glad we get to fight for another day.”
The Gators will face No. 5-seed Kentucky Thursday at about 3:30 p.m. The game will stream on SEC Network.
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