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Friday, June 21, 2024

Florida falls to UCF in NCAA Tournament, magical season comes to a close

The Gators lost a third starter to injury in Faith Dut and could not overcome the Knights’ stellar defense

<p>Florida women’s basketball added a new coach to its staff Tuesday, as Jackie Moore was named assistant to the head coach.</p>

Florida women’s basketball added a new coach to its staff Tuesday, as Jackie Moore was named assistant to the head coach.

Already with its back against the wall, Florida knew it was going to have to bang around in the paint against Central Florida to make up for a significant size disadvantage. 

Tragically, that banging led to more familiar Gator whimpers as injuries struck UF down once again. 

With 1:16 left in the second quarter, Florida forward Faith Dut landed awkwardly on her right ankle while fighting for a rebound. The Vancouver, British Columbia, native stayed down for an extended period, eventually being helped off the floor.

Unfortunately, a lack of health became the summary of a disheartening final chapter in the 2022 Gators women’s basketball campaign.

No. 10-seed Florida (21-11) bowed out of its NCAA Tournament-opening matchup Saturday, 69-52, falling to No. 7-seed UCF (27-3).

The American Athletic Conference champions and nation’s best-scoring defense (47.5 opponent points per game) pressed and schemed the short-handed Gators to the brink in Storrs, Connecticut. 

Sophomore forward Jordyn Merritt was ruled out early Saturday afternoon after taking a hard fall in the Gators’ March 4 SEC Tournament loss to Ole Miss. Graduate guard Kiki Smith already played her last game in a Gators uniform, going down with a season-ending knee injury in UF’s March 3 win over Vanderbilt

Dut made her way out of the locker room in sweatpants and walking on crutches toward the bench. The Florida roster appeared suddenly thin at a costly time. 

UCF forward Brittney Smith led all scorers with a career-high 26 points on 11-15 shooting. Her 6-foot 3-inch presence in the paint was a matchup nightmare for a UF team without their usual starting frontcourt. 

Junior guard Nina Rickards played all 40 minutes, grinding out a team-high 17 points. Senior Zippy Broughton joined her in double figures at 12 points and eight rebounds. 

Broughton talked about her intentions to come back to Florida for fifth year in the postgame press conference. 

The Wetumpka, Alabama native also took a great deal of responsibility for the Gators’ faults in her revised, and now permanent, role as lead guard.

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“I let the game slip right out of my fingertips,” Broughton said. “We started to do things where it just wasn’t the best decision. That’s something that, as a point guard, I’m gonna have to take control over next time.”

Head coach Kelly Rae Finley called the injuries surrounding UF in March “unfortunate,” but noted that her team never used them as an excuse. 

“Our hope and goal today was to compete every possession,” Finley said. “Sometimes we did that. I think sometimes we got a little too excited.”

UCF’s length advantage factored into their effective first quarter press. In a 3/4 court diamond formation, the Knights turned the Gators over five times in the opening period and scored nine points off the miscues to lead after one quarter, 18-13.

Led by longtime head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson, UCF ran a fundamentally beautiful system on both sides of the ball. The Knights’ offense featured lots of movement, back screens, cuts and well-executed sets that would have been hard to match for any team in the field.

Florida could not shoot themselves into the game, going 8-30 from the field as a team before halftime. Close range, mid-range and long-range, it didn’t matter. The lid on the basket was sealed tight until after the break. 

The Gators could not find an offensive rhythm to keep up with the Knights, scoring only three buckets in the second while UCF gained separation. Smith and AAC player of the year Diamond Battles led the charge for the Knights, chipping in 12 points and 11 points respectively before the break as the half’s top-two scorers.

Florida clawed back a bit in the third, opening the quarter on a 12-3 run. A 3-point swish from senior forward Emanuely de Oliveira cut the UCF lead to six with 6:37 remaining. 

Smith struck back on her own for the Knights, ending the quarter on a personal 6-0 run. She was deadly efficient with short-range floaters all day long, with the Gators struggling to contest. UCF led UF 51-39 heading to the fourth quarter.

A back-and-forth final frame did not bode well for Florida trying to get back in the game. The Knights’ lead stayed mostly the same while the teams traded blows. In the end, the Gators could not get the undeterred scoring flurry they needed to get over the hump.

Even though she was injured and absent from the press podium after the loss, it was impossible to not mention senior Kiara Smith on the last page of Florida’s story. 

Finley quoted Smith as she reflected on the senior’s career and how she’s grown. 

“ [Smith] said ‘It’s the people that make a place, and because of that, I know that Florida is where I want to be,’” Finley said. “It was easy to coach Kiki. She was a joy every single day.”

Finley’s first season at the helm in Gainesville now complete and the coach said she was grateful for her first team. The squad will be remembered for the successes they had, the adversity they faced and the heads that they turned. 

“There’s some teams that you coach that are challenging to coach,” Finley said. “This one was never that. They made my job easy every day. They chose to give me a great experience.”

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

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