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Monday, February 06, 2023

Florida notches latest signature win, stomps No. 7 Tennessee

Pesky defense turned into offense as the Gators earn their largest victory over a top-10 opponent in school history

<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.

Florida guard Kiki Smith took charge in the open court, ball in hand. Her backcourt teammate Nina Rickards sprinted the lane, looking for an opportunity to pounce on slow Tennessee feet. 

Smith stopped at the elbow and slung a perfect one-armed bounce pass to Rickards. Absorbing the foul, Rickards somehow finished a crafty reverse layup to give Florida a 10-point advantage.

At times, interim head coach Kelly Rae Finley’s team looks as if it’s playing the wrong sport. The Gators might be the quickest team in the SEC, putting the rest of the country on notice in a track meet of a rout over the national powerhouse Volunteers. 

Florida (16-6, 6-3 SEC) defeated No. 7 Tennessee (19-3, 8-2 SEC) 84-59, forcing and capitalizing on mistakes all night long. The Gators blistered the Vols, handing them their largest loss of the season. In UF’s first win over Tennessee since 2016 and fifth ever, the Gators again made their case to be ranked among SEC contenders as February begins.

Florida outrebounded the NCAA’s leading rebounding team 40-38, forced 18 turnovers and complemented them with a 24-1 fast break scoring advantage. The Gators notched the best field goal percentage of Tennessee’s opponents this season. The Vols’ defense entered Wednesday’s game forcing the lowest opponent shooting percentage in the country. 

Finley praised the stamina and general health of her team as evidence for those stats. She recognized that her team played at a “pace most teams don’t play at.”

“We wanted a fast pace, and that’s what we did,” Smith said. 

Florida did it following a loss to No. 1 South Carolina Sunday that snapped a five-game SEC win streak. Sophomore forward Jordyn Merritt said they prepared in the exact same way for this win as they did before Sunday’s loss.

Smith had another brilliant addition to her final campaign in Gainesville, scoring a game-high 25 points. Merritt and Rickards joined her in double figures with 13 and 16 points respectively.

Tennessee guard Jordan Horston, who is featured on the late-season watch list for the John R. Wooden Award, was held in check. Florida’s stifling defense held the junior to a season-low five points. 

Tennessee opened up scoring with a Horston three, but Florida turned it around quickly with a near four-minute, 15-2 run in the first quarter.

The Gators forced 13 turnovers before halftime thanks to pesky defense across the floor by Smith and senior Zippy Broughton. Florida’s backcourt repeatedly pickpocketed Tennessee ball handlers near midcourt, leading to nine steals in the first half.

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Smith opened the third quarter with a short run before the Gators went without a basket for the next three and a half minutes. Luckily for Florida, Rickards got in the lane and had a handful of floaters fall for her. She poured in seven points in the third, keeping the Vols at bay.

Tennessee center Tamari Key, who leads her team in blocked shots, committed her fourth foul with 3:29 left in the third quarter. With a big part of their size advantage gone, Tennessee floundered for the rest of the game, coming no closer than 14 points down. 

UT finished the game without a bucket over the last five minutes. Florida responded with a 9-0 run, passing through Tennessee's length and getting a flurry of wide-open looks.

The Gators earned their sixth SEC win of the year, matching the total from the 2019-2020 season with seven games remaining. 

Finley made it clear she wouldn’t mind holding on to her team’s scrappy underdog persona a little while longer. With big wins coming in waves for her Gators, it doesn’t seem like a bad idea.

“We don’t need everybody else to tell us we’re good,” Finley said.

Florida now turns to a three-game SEC road trip, the first of which comes Sunday at No. 14 Georgia. The game will be broadcast at 1 p.m. on the SEC Network.

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

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