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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Gators out grit Auburn for first SEC win streak under Finley

Free throws down the stretch were again key for Florida, who shot 20-23 from the stripe.

<p>Florida&#x27;s Kiara Smith during a game against Alabama on Feb. 18, 2021. Smith will not compete with the team in the NCAA Tournament due to a season-ending injury.</p>

Florida's Kiara Smith during a game against Alabama on Feb. 18, 2021. Smith will not compete with the team in the NCAA Tournament due to a season-ending injury.

Staying collected down the stretch has not always been a major strength for the Florida women’s basketball team. They had no need for it last season when facing a number of lopsided defeats. 

This week, however, composure earned them their first SEC win streak post-Cam Newbauer and matched their win total from all of last season early in conference play.

The Gators (12-5, 2-2 SEC) toppled Auburn (8-7, 0-4 SEC) 68-63 in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center Thursday night, fresh off a signature win at Texas A&M Sunday. Florida took their impressive free throw shooting from the weekend and bettered it against the Tigers, a stellar 20-23 from the line.

Interim head coach Kelly Rae Finley’s squad did not make it easy on themselves. Florida’s win came in spite of shooting 28% from the field in the second half. Up seven at halftime, the Gators squandered their lead midway through the fourth quarter only to climb back late in the final minutes.

Guards Kiki Smith and Nina Rickards took the reins for the Gators in the final period, combining to score all 14 points for Florida in that span, eight of which came from the free-throw line. Rickards notched a new career best, shooting 100% from the charity stripe on eight attempts. 

Freshman Alberte Rimdal set a new career-high pouring in 14 points off the bench in 19 minutes of action. The guard kept the Gators in the game early in the third quarter, contributing when no one else had it going. 

Florida braved the Tigers’ stout interior defense and seemed determined to be more physical early on to record 10 of their 21 first quarter points in the paint. An 8-0 run early in the quarter gave Florida a seven-point lead at the end of the period.

“In order to get the win like we had hoped for, we knew that we were going to have to grit it out,” said Finley.

Sophomore forward Floor Toonders had an immediate impact off the bench despite not seeing the court since Florida’s Jan. 2 clash with Georgia. The 6-foot-4 forward used her size advantage to chip in six points through seven minutes of first half action.

Auburn sophomore Aicha Coulibaly tried to do it all for the Tigers, recording game-highs of 24 points and eight rebounds. The only Tiger in double figures, she killed the Gators on the inside all night long and kept Auburn competitive. 

Coulibaly scored eight in the second quarter as the Tigers closed out the first half on an eight-point run, save for a Rickards jumper just before the horn. 

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The Gators played tenacious perimeter defense to cause problems for the Tigers before halftime. Many deflections from the backcourt, especially from Smith and senior Zippy Broughton, led to 12 Auburn turnovers by the time the final buzzer sounded. 

Momentum for the Tigers was still high following the break as a five-point run kept them within striking distance. Luckily for the Gators, Rimdal scored the team’s first five points of the third quarter to keep the lead. 

Florida’s defensive grit shifted to the lane when several Gators drew game-changing offensive fouls leading to fourth quarter foul trouble for Auburn. Shortly after the Tigers took a three-point lead with 3:37 left to play, Coulibaly earned her final two personal fouls, one of them a technical, ending her night early. 

With Coulibaly on the bench, Smith and Rickards seized the opportunity and never looked back, outscoring the Tigers 12-4 to close the game. 

“It's not always pretty,” Finley said. “But, I was impressed with the plays we made during the late game stretch.”

Florida travels to Tuscaloosa on Sunday afternoon to challenge the Alabama Crimson Tide. Tipoff is set for 3 p.m. The game will be broadcast on SEC Network+. 

Contact Caleb Wiegandt at Follow him on Twitter at @CalebWiegandt.

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