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Saturday, November 26, 2022

Tigers keep Gators at bay in the bayou, 66-61

Florida lost its first road game in SEC play against a powerful LSU team

Nina Rickards pulls up for a jump shot against Georgia Feb. 28, 2021. She led the Gators with 17 points during Sunday's loss to LSU
Nina Rickards pulls up for a jump shot against Georgia Feb. 28, 2021. She led the Gators with 17 points during Sunday's loss to LSU

Tigers center Faustine Aifuwa waited patiently as stealthy and quick Florida guard Nina Rickards attacked the basket. The junior looked to cut into Louisiana State’s 59-56 lead with 29 seconds left in the game. 

Aifuwa timed her jump perfectly, sending Rickards’ shot in the opposite direction of the basket.

The emphatic block essentially clinched a victory for the Tigers.

No.11 LSU (23-4, 11-3) won a tight battle against the No. 17 Gators (20-7, 10-4), 66-61. The top-25 contest played out in front of the Tigers’ fourth-largest crowd in program history. LSU got revenge and evened the season series against the Gators in front of a sold-out Pete Maravich Assembly Center. 

“I thought it was an extremely competitive game where both teams gave it their very, very best,” Interim head coach Kelly Rae Finley said. “I was really proud of our teams’ fight our effort in a competitive environment.”

Florida previously clinched a one-point victory when the foes met in Gainesville Jan. 23, 73-72. 

LSU head coach Kim Mulkey was impressed by the Gators following their first meeting, especially Finley. Mulkey hollered during a Feb. 6 press conference for the “interim” label to be removed and officially deem Finley as UF’s long-term leader. 

“I don’t understand why that girl hadn’t been named the head coach yet,” Mulkey said. “I don’t know her, but I know what I see.”

Finley said after the game that she found Mulkey’s comment to be courageous and that she appreciated the support from the Hall-of-Fame coach.

“I'm very grateful that women are speaking out about other women,” Finley said. “I think that's really powerful.”

The Tigers looked primed to defend their home court, with Aifuwa scoring six first-quarter points and dominating the paint, resulting in a seven-point lead for the Tigers after the opening 10 minutes.

In trademark fashion, however, Florida forward Jordyn Merritt connected on a much-needed 3-pointer to cut the deficit to four. After a last-minute foul committed by freshman, Louisiana native Jeriah Warren, the Tigers entered the second quarter up 17-12. Guard Alexis Morris put up big numbers for LSU, scoring 10 points before the halfway mark of the ball game. Rickards had a masterful offensive performance, putting up a season-high 17 points to lead all Florida scorers. 

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In the second quarter, senior Zippy Broughton got involved early with a tenacious steal that led to a confident pull-up jumper. Before heading to halftime, it looked as though the Gators would head into the locker room trailing by one. 

That is until Broughton pushed the ball upcourt in transition and shot over an off-balance LSU defender to put the Gators up 26-25. Florida led the Tigers 24-6 in fastbreak points, doing its best work while pushing the tempo. 

LSU opened the second half outscoring Florida 19-14, despite three of its key players in forward Autumn Newby, guard Jailin Cherry and Morris having three fouls.  

The Gators, uncharacteristically, did not shoot the ball well from the free-throw line, finishing the game 11 of 22 from the charity stripe. Missing these critical free points kept LSU in control of the ball game entering the decisive final quarter of the game up 44-40.

In the contentious final minutes, the fast-paced battle became a shootout from the free-throw line. 

Morris scored eight points at the charity stripe to keep the Gators in check. Graduate student Kiara Smith had to exit the game with 10 seconds left after falling hard to the ground on a foul committed by Aifuwa. Smith did not return to the game and finished her night with 13 points and eight rebounds.

Florida hits the road one last time to end the regular season for an SEC showdown against the Vanderbilt Commodores. Vanderbilt has struggled in SEC play, losing six of their last seven games. The Gators are on the hunt for their 21st victory of this historic season at the Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville, Tennessee. 

Tipoff will begin shortly after 5:30 p.m. and the game will be broadcast live on SEC Network.

Contact Brenda Bogle at Follow her on Twitter @bogle_brenda.

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Brenda Bogle

Brenda Bogle is a UF journalism senior with a specialization in sports and media. She joined The Alligator in the Fall of 2021.

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