Georgia guard Que Morrison held the ball with 30 seconds left in the game. She penetrated towards the basket before finding an open teammate in guard Sara Ashlee Baker for the potential game winner. Baker squared up, launching a game-defining shot from the corner.
Florida forward Jordyn Merritt latched onto the ball and was quickly surrounded by a ravage pack of Bulldog defenders attempting to tie up for a jump-ball. Junior Faith Dut called a timeout and in doing so iced the game for Florida.
The Gators (17-6, 7-3) claimed their seventh win in eight games, defeating No.14 Georgia(17-4, 6-3) in a thrilling 54-51 victory Sunday afternoon.
Florida previously hosted the Bulldogs Jan. 2 to kick-off SEC play, giving up a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter and ultimately falling 73-69. The second meeting once again favored the road team, but it was the Gators stealing a win in a battle of top-six SEC teams.
Interim head coach Kelly Rae Finley said after the game that she saw an improvement in her team's ability to protect the ball from Georgia’s athletic guards. An ability that was lacking in their first meeting with the Bulldogs.
“Though we had turnovers, there were fewer of them than the first time we played that led to wide-open runout layups,” Finley said.
The Bulldogs had trouble connecting on any of their shot attempts from the field, missing their first 12 shots of the contest. Georgia’s score remained put at zero until there was 2:40 left in the first quarter.
Despite terrible shooting, the Bulldogs entered the second quarter trailing 9-8, due in large part to a refreshing late quarter performance by senior Malury Bates. The forward put up six points in the first half, but her biggest highlight came on the defensive end, an earth-shattering block on Merritt. The swat led to a crucial layup by Bates to the end of the first quarter.
Finley said that Florida came into the game knowing Georgia was great defensively and understood the daunting task her team would face trying to score.
“They're one of the best defensive teams in our league,” Finley said. “They're really challenging to score against, they’re challenging to get open against, their guards are explosive and athletic.”
Five minutes into the second quarter the Gators found themselves without their leading scorer as guard Kiara Smith picked up her second foul of the game. Florida clung to a 15-12 lead at the time of Smith’s exit to the bench.
Florida’s guards continued attacking the paint and drawing fouls on Georgia defenders. UF visited the charity stripe 10 times in that first half, connecting on nine shots. Junior Nina Rickards produced eight points and two rebounds in the opening 20 minutes to send Florida to the locker room up 26-22.
Georgia left much of its scoring woes in the rearview mirror, cashing in the first six points of the second half. Florida’s nine third quarter turnovers helped the Bulldogs balloon their lead and outscore the Gators 20-12. Trailing by as many as seven, a clutch three from forward Emanuely De Oliveira cut Florida’s deficit to four heading into the final frame of the game.
The Gators outscored Georgia in the fourth quarter 16-9 and kept their turnovers to a minimum, coughing up just three over the final stretch of the contest. Tenacious offense from Smith helped propel her team ahead of the Bulldogs, as she capitalized on two driving layups and finished the game with 10 points and eight rebounds.
Merritt played a crucial role in the victory as well, totaling 11 points and claiming the clutch game-sealing rebound. Finley praised Merritt after the game for her ability to score the ball when her team needed it most, calling her a real weapon because of her ability to be effective inside and on the perimeter.
The Gators are back in action Feb. 10 as they travel to Starkville, Mississippi for a long-awaited match-up against Mississippi State.
Florida’s Dec. 30 match-up against another team of Bulldogs was postponed due to positive COVID-19 tests from members of the Mississippi State women’s basketball program.
The opening tip will be thrown at 6:30 p.m. and the game will be broadcasted on the SEC Network.
Contact Brenda Bogle at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bogle_brenda.
Brenda Bogle is a UF journalism senior with a specialization in sports and media. She joined The Alligator in the Fall of 2021.