Seniors Kristina Moore, Zippy Broughton, Kiara Smith and Emanuely De Oliveira stepped onto the court with family and friends on either side of them as they basked in their final regular-season game as a Florida Gator.
Interim head coach Kelly Rae Finley said after the game that this senior class made their mark in the history books.
“This senior class will go down as one of the best senior classes to help really rejuvenate our program,” Finley said.
While cheers and hugs were shared, there was a pressing matter Florida had to address. They were hosting a hungry and resilient Missouri team not so willing to hand over a win.
And the Tigers definitely did not.
Florida (20-9, 10-6) lost its last regular-season game against Missouri (18-11, 7-9) Sunday, dropping the final three games against SEC opponents. UF came into this battle against the Tigers looking to rebound from a loss against Vanderbilt where it turned the ball over 28 times.
Finley said after the game that she knew Missouri would be tough competition. The Tigers handed No. 1 South Carolina its only loss earlier this season.
“They’re really talented,” Finley said. “We felt like we had some advantages, I’m not sure that we really exposed those as well as we had been against some of our opponents.”
After honoring graduating players prior to tip-off, senior Emanuely de Oliveira kept the party going as she ignited the Gator faithful with a 3-pointer close to the top of the key. Oliviera went 2-2 from behind the arc in the first ten minutes of play as Missouri pounded the ball in the paint. Six of the Tigers' 10 points came from underneath the basket as they used height to their advantage.
Another senior for the Gators caught fire from the 3-point line in the second quarter, as Kristina Moore connected on two triples of her own. The Gators fostered an impressive lead, 20-10, until the Tigers took control of the ball game and outscored Florida 19-10 in the second quarter.
Missouri forward Hayley Frank tallied 10 points in the first half and gave her squad its first lead of the game with a smooth 3-pointer off an assist from sophomore Mama Dembele. Florida was outrebounded by the Tigers 23-17 and committed seven turnovers in the first half before heading into the locker room.
Moore went back to work from behind the arc, sinking a long-range shot at the start of the third quarter. Additionally, she was fouled by Missouri guard Haley Troup. Moore landed on Troup’s foot and was slow to get up following the foul. Freshman Alberte Rimdal checked in for Moore and completed the four-point play. Moore would return later in the third.
Following a quiet first half, sophomore Jordyn Merritt went to work for the Gators connecting on two threes and tallying eight points in the third quarter. Frank continued shooting the ball well for the Tigers putting up 10 points in the third and Dembele scored nine points heading into the final 10 minutes of the game. Junior Nina Rickards, however, cut the Tigers’ lead to eight heading into the fourth by sinking a 3-pointer just as the clock hit zero.
When it looked like Missouri was going to ice the game, Merritt was determined to put the team back in the conversation. She helped cut the Tigers lead to five with just over a minute to go in the ball game. Merritt doveon the court for loose balls and willed her team to keep momentum going.
Unfortunately for the Gators, Missouri was able to close the game at the charity stripe with clutch makes from Dembele, Hansen and Higginbottom. Merritt led all Florida scorers with 23 points and added on seven rebounds.
“Late in the game, what helped us was just understanding that you need to rotate, scramble and make the next play,” Finley said. “So to lose sight of that these last two games, to get stuck and hung up on a possession or play and not go on to the next play is not characteristic of us.”
With the regular season coming to a close, Finley and the Gators will take this potential Cinderella story to one of the biggest stages in women’s college basketball. The SEC tournament is set to begin on March 2 in Nashville, Tennessee.
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.