When the final buzzer rang, guard Kiara Smith stood at the half-court line and looked off to the distance. The Gators huddled on the sideline, but she wasn’t there.
They called Smith over, and she reluctantly waddled over, with every stride writing the last chapter of her career at Florida.
Smith’s and the Gators’ post-season tournament hopes died in a 77-57 Saturday night game against the Villanova Wildcats (16-6).
From tip-off, the game looked like a potential Villanova sweep. The Wildcats hit two buckets and a three minutes in. Florida responded with Smith, forward Jordyn Merritt and Kristina Moore buckets. Forward Cydnee Kinslow also shot a three that countered some of Villanova’s aggressive offense.
Then, a deep Smith jumper tied the game at 16 for the first and last time. Smith built a lead at the charity stripe that freshman guard Brynn Farrell used to put the Gators up by three. That advantage disappeared after two Villanova buckets left Florida behind by one to close off the first.
After a close first-quarter shootout, Florida shot 10 less points than Villanova during the second.
A Smith jumper sandwiched 5 back-to-back Villanova layups and threes. Three Moore buckets curbed the Wildcats’ dominance. A guard Danielle Rainey jumper capped off Florida’s offense with a final Villanova three pointer bringing the game to 11 points. At the buzzer, coach Cam Newbauer paced around the court with a mix of disappointment and frustration.
Trailing by 11 into the third, Florida almost matched Villanova’s scoring but couldn’t cut the deficit.
A forward Floor Toonders and Rainey bucket brought it back to 10 points. More offense from Smith, Rainey, Moore and Merritt failed to overpower the Wildcats’ sharpshooters, who scored almost half of their points from the free-throw line.
Then, the Gators flushed any hopes of a win during a subpar fourth quarter. Merritt benched after five fouls, and Florida didn’t even shoot enough to hit double digit figures.
A smooth Farrell bucket ended a 4-minute drought and left the team lagging by 16. A Rainey layup signaled a Florida timeout. When the Gators hit the court, a foul fest ensued, Villanova grew its lead to 20 points and Newbauer paced around until the buzzer echoed around the arena.
Florida committed 22 turnovers compared to Villanova’s four. The Wildcats capitalized on the Gators’ clumsiness and made 20 points off the turnovers alone. Smith, who became the team’s lead scorer in guard Lavender Briggs’ absence, had an underwhelming night with only 10 points to her name. Moore shot a career-high 13 points, and Rainey totaled 12.
Even tonight when we have to battle through a ton of adversity, our team never stopped fighting and that's something I'm thankful for,” Newbauer said. “The postseason experience we gained this year will help us as we continue to grow our program.”
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