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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Gators survive double-overtime thriller for first SEC win of the Finley era

Kiara Smith and Zippy Broughton led Florida to a tough road victory won at the free-throw line.

<p>Kiki Smith (left) and Lavender Briggs (right), pictured during a game against Mizzou game Jan. 28. Smith scored a game-high 28 points for the Gators Sunday.</p>

Kiki Smith (left) and Lavender Briggs (right), pictured during a game against Mizzou game Jan. 28. Smith scored a game-high 28 points for the Gators Sunday.

Graduate senior Kiara Smith demanded the ball as Florida’s offense surged up the court, facing a Texas A&M defense that stood completely baffled by the diminutive guard. 

The redshirt senior takes two aggressive dribbles, hesitates, then takes another. She falls to the floor, absorbing the contact and flipping the ball towards the rim on the way down. It falls in; count the basket and the foul. 

Smith has executed this move so many times in a Gators tenure filled with agonizing defeats and embarrassing seasons. But this time, it contributed to a signature, top-25 win for Florida’s women’s basketball team.

After surviving an Aggie onslaught in the second quarter, it was Florida's veteran leadership that got them to the free throw line and ultimately gave them an exhilarating first SEC victory under interim head coach Kelly Rae Finley. 

Florida (11-5, 1-2 SEC) upset No. 25 Texas A&M (10-5, 0-3 SEC) 97-89 on the road Sunday afternoon in double overtime in the team’s first game after losing leading scorer and rebounder Lavender Briggs to a stress reaction in her lower leg. 

Briggs dealt with the injury for some time before it was announced by Finley Friday morning that she would miss the remainder of the season. The Gators would come roaring back to outscore the Aggies 70-55 over the final two quarters and subsequent overtimes to secure their first ever win in College Station, Texas after being down as many as 19 points early in the fourth quarter.

Senior guards Smith and Zippy Broughton were brilliant for Florida, leading the team with 28 and 27 points respectively. Broughton delivered her baskets more evenly, scoring 14 of the Gators’ 27 first half points. Smith, however, poured in 25 points in the second half and subsequent overtimes after only scoring two in the first half.

Both guards carved up an Aggies defense that allowed 26 points in the paint after halftime. Fouled or not, both guards were difficult to stop when attacking the rim. 

“Kiki [Kiara Smith] and Zippy [Broughton] performed like the elite guards that they are,”  Finley said. “They play both ends of the floor, they’re creative scorers and playmakers and they were fun to watch compete today.”

Forward Jordyn Merritt continued her excellent sophomore year, adding 17 points with 5-8 shooting from beyond the arc. 

Both teams played a relatively sloppy first quarter, Texas A&M especially. The Aggies missed every field goal attempt until the 4:06 mark of the period. Both teams shot abysmal percentages from the floor in that span, Florida 31% and Texas A&M 17%. 

Aggies head coach Gary Blair called timeout after a quick four points from Florida to open the second quarter. Quadashah Hoppie attacked the perimeter out of the stoppage, as Texas A&M’s lead guard slipped away from the Gator defense and found space for a number of 3-pointers and mid-range baskets. The graduate student was a huge factor in the Aggies’ comeback late in the second quarter, finishing the first half with 12 points on 5-10 shooting. 

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The Aggies owned the offensive glass in the first half, out rebounding the Gators 10-2 while translating the advantage into 11 second-chance points. Florida contributed to their halftime deficit just as much, though, settling for and missing long- range baskets.

By the 4:30 mark of the third quarter, Texas A&M stretched its lead to 16. Immediately after that, the Gators went on a 9-0 run catalyzed by Smith and senior Kristina Moore, who provided a spark off the bench. Florida cut the Aggies’ lead to nine at the conclusion of the quarter. 

A flurry of Gator 3-pointers continued Florida’s run early in the fourth. Merritt connected for two baskets behind the arc, and Moore’s three gave the Gators their first lead since the second quarter. 

The two teams traded baskets for most of the rest of the period until Texas A&M’s Maliyah Johnson missed her opportunity for a 3-point play with 38.5 seconds left in regulation, keeping the game tied at 71. A couple of replay reviews and a Gator turnover later, Aggie guard Kayla Wells missed a potential game-winning jumper at the buzzer.

Both teams found themselves locked in a battle from the free throw line during the two overtime periods. Florida shot 11-14 (78%), and Texas A&M shot 7-9 (77%). Yet Texas A&M could not answer the 22-point barrage that Smith and Broughton combined for in the extra periods. The Gators outscored the Aggies 13-5 in the second overtime, sealing the win. 

The Gators look to build their first SEC win streak in nearly a year on Thursday night when they host Auburn at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. Tipoff is set for 5 p.m, and the game will broadcast on the SEC Network. 

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

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