With eight seconds left on the shot clock, Florida guard Kiara Smith missed a layup. Forward Cydnee Kinslow swooped in with a save that reset the clock.
Smith got fouled and earned two free throws that became critical during the seesawing fourth quarter.
After the Gators were eliminated from the SEC Tournament, Smith got another opportunity to suit up for the orange and blue. Florida (11-13) subdued the Charlotte 49ers (10-10) in a tight 66-65 match Friday evening in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament.
The matchup began with a Smith three, like many others this season. However, it lacked the energy of the Gators’ previous SEC meetings. Guard Nina Rickards and forward Faith Dut, who Florida relied on after star guard Lavender Briggs’ season-ending injury, didn’t play due to health and safety protocols.
Seconds into the first quarter, forward Floor Toonder grabbed a board that led to a forward Jordyn Merrit jumper that put the Gators up by five. Florida’s domination continued with a guard Kristinna Moore jumper and Merrit three.
Freshman guard Brynn Farrell’s jumper marked the last Florida bucket before Smith ended the Gators’ brief offensive slug. Smith hit the court running and made two buckets, a pair of free throws and an impressive steal-turned-layup.
Florida entered the second with a seven-point advantage that Charlotte ate away at for the whole quarter. The 49ers’ defensive tactic of targeting Smith worked as Florida only earned 12 points, almost half of what it did in the first.
The Gators barely clinched their lead with a Merrit rebound layup, Moore jumper and a pair of Smith free throws. As Charlotte reduced their deficit to one, a pair of Merritt and Smith free throws reverted to a five-point lead.
Then, Florida dropped the ball with an early turnover that foreshadowed the third quarter.
The offense cooled down, and the only players who put into the score were Farrell and Merritt. Like during the SEC Tournament, it seemed as if Smith tackled on the opponents herself.
But a four minute drought allowed Charlotte three consecutive buckets for a first-time advantage. Smith’s jumper came in clutch and tied 46-46 until Charlotte stole the lead again right before the buzzer.
The Gators and the 49ers began a game of tug of war with rediscovered offensive heat during the fourth quarter.
With Charlotte hounding Smith, the redshirt senior guard regained the lead with a jumper on the fast break. Two Merritt buckets and a Toonders layup sealed the Gators’ advantage temporarily.
Four minutes remained, and 49ers fans’ chants echoed around the arena for the first time. Smith missed a jumper from a steal and a pair two shots from the charity stripe. A Kinslow three and layup followed, and coach Cam Newbauer pulled Kiki to the side for a pep talk with a minute to go.
“One thing that tugs at your heart a little bit is she’s got a 36-point game and in the locker room, you’d never know it because we lost,” Newbauer said. “She just wants to win. That’s what makes Kiki so special. She’s just focused on being her best version of herself every game out, where that’s become infectious.”
Then, the clock constantly stopped and chaos ensued. Charlotte tied the game 64-64 after a three and pair of free throws, and the foul fest began.
Farrell made a pair of game-clinching free throws. Seconds later, Charlotte headed to the free-throw line but only secured one of two. The Gators retained their advantage and stopped the game from spilling into overtime.
“You look at Brynn Farrell, who didn’t play a minute non-conference as a freshman because of a foot injury, then she gets cleared and has worked her way through the SEC conference while learning how to play and compete at that level,” Newbauer said.
And Charlotte fans’ cheers disappeared like the team’s hopes of advancing in the tournament.
Florida will face off with Villanova Saturday at 8 p.m. in the regional championship semifinal in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Contact Grethel Aguila at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @GrethelAguila