Graduate senior Kiara Smith pushed the ball, drawing a sea of attention from the Commodore defense. She executed a perfect pass to sophomore Jordyn Merrit, who got fouled underneath the basket.
Suddenly, all eyes fell on Smith as she dropped to the ground holding her right knee. The crowd at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee, became eerily quiet as Smith lay on the court in clear discomfort.
Smith would be helped off the court, putting little to no pressure on her injured leg. Florida now looked to complete its comeback against Vanderbilt without their veteran leader, trailing 48-43 with 4:16 left in the game.
Senior Zippy Broughton said that the team collectively wanted to win and give their best efforts on the court for their injured teammate.
“No matter if we came out with the win or loss we just had to give our all for Kiki,” Broughton said.
The Gators didn’t just finish the game. They won it. And they did it for Smith.
Florida (21-9, 10-6) secured a 53-52 victory over Vanderbilt (14-18, 4-12) Thursday afternoon in the second round of the SEC tournament. UF obtained its first, and only, lead of the ball game with just eight seconds remaining.
The Commodores came into the contest fresh off a 85-69 victory over Texas A&M to open up tournament play and showed no signs of fatigue coming into Thursday afternoon.
Vanderbilt stormed out the gate, scoring the first 12 points of the matchup. Defensively, the Commodores led the SEC in forced turnovers during the regular season and their relentlessness forced 13 UF turnovers in the first half. Florida was able to muster some success on offense, due largely to junior Nina Rickards scoring eight points in the opening quarter.
The Gators began feeding the ball inside to freshman Taliyah Wyche, where she found six easy points to help tie the game at 18. Vanderbilt guard Iyana Moore and forward Brinae Alexander scored 11 and 12 points in the half respectively, propelling the Commodores on a 13-4 run and a comfortable nine-point halftime lead.
Florida continued to commit costly turnovers after the break, tallying six at the start of the second half. The Gators usually play their best basketball in transition, outrunning opponents on the open floor, but Vanderbilt honed in on that facet, limiting UF to just four points in transition through three quarters.
Smith was having trouble connecting on layups and floaters when attacking the basket. Florida’s leading scorer was 2-11 from the field entering the decisive in the fourth quarter.
After Smith’s exit, Broughton and Rickards lead the charge for the Gators to close out the game. Broughton sank two clutch jumpers and finished a layup to slowly cut at the Commodores lead, ending her evening with 14 points.
Rickards gave her team the lead with eight seconds remaining and great execution on the part of the Gators’ defense kept the Commodores from continuing what would have been a Cinderella run in the conference tournament. Rickards led all Florida scorers with 15 points to go along with a team-high eight rebounds.
“Our guards had a different look in their eye which means a different belief in their hearts,” Finley said. “They’re gonna take the game into their own hands which is what they did.”
An emotional Finley said after the game that Smith is a selfless competitor and was an essential part of this team's historic run.
“She sacrificed a lot in coming back this year to help us write the story of how the Gators became great,” Finley said. “She didn't have to do that.”
The story continues for this Florida team.
With Vanderbilt comfortably in the rearview, Florida now looks to take down Ole Miss Friday. The two top-five SEC schools met back in January where the Rebels handed Florida a 74-56 home loss.
Tip-off will commence 25 minutes after the conclusion of the matchup between No. 1 South Carolina and Arkansas and will broadcast live 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.