NASHVILLE, Tenn. – As if the injury ghosts on day one for Florida weren’t enough, they turned Bridgestone Arena into a haunted house on day two.
Florida forward Jordyn Merritt took a hard fall early in the first quarter and did not return, leaving UF down two offensive stars for all but the first three minutes of Friday’s game.
With the loss of leading scorer Kiara Smith still fresh from the day before, bad omens for the Gators were in the air.
No. 23 Florida (21-10) fell in a wire-to-wire affair with Ole Miss (23-7) 70-60 Friday afternoon, eliminating the Gators from the SEC Tournament. The loss comes in the first game without Smith following her Thursday knee injury.
The senior All-SEC First Team selection cried out in pain late in UF’s second-round win over Vanderbilt. Smith posted an update to Twitter shortly before Friday’s tip to announce the right knee ailment would end her Gator career.
Ole Miss senior Shakira Austin played a monstrous game in front of a crowd of 6,880. The 6-foot 5-inch center led the Rebels and the game with a season-high 27 points and 13 rebounds. Her size was a recurring problem for Florida in the paint on both sides of the court.
Guard Zippy Broughton did everything she could to match Austin, exploding for 26 points and a UF career-high six 3-pointers. Starting in place of Smith, senior forward Kristina Moore was the only other Gator in double figures, scoring 11 points in 23 minutes.
Smith, who sported crutches to the postgame press conference, was active on the Florida bench, holding a clipboard and rooting exuberantly for her teammates. Broughton said her backcourt partner encouraged her through the enhanced role Friday.
“Losing Kiki, that's a lot of points,” Broughton said. “That's a lot of rebounds, a lot of assists, and that was a big role I had to step into. But Kiki believed in me, she told me I got it, and any timeouts we had, any breaks we had at the free-throw line, I was always looking at her.”
Head coach Kelly Rae Finley said her team’s offense lacked flow, and understandably so as early-March injuries have started to pile up for the Gators.
“People were in different positions, and that's been characteristic of us all season, to adjust and adapt to whatever adversity comes our way,” Finley said. “Today was no different.”
It was Austin’s show in the first quarter, using her immense size advantage after Merritt’s departure to pour in 12 points in the opening period against a near-defenseless Florida interior.
Broughton connected on three shots from beyond the arc in the first, keeping the Rebels in check and only in front 20-15 at the buzzer. As a team, 3-point range was the only place UF got good looks early on; three of Florida’s four field goals were triples in the period.
UF’s poor shooting carried into the second quarter, going a mere 4-18 from the floor. The Gators continued to struggle with Austin’s paint presence and settled for missed outside jumpers, leading to an over five-minute stretch without a field goal.
After the halftime break, it was Broughton’s turn to take over the game. Cutting through the lane and stopping and popping alike, she dominated the third quarter with 12 points.
Florida scored a quick five points to open the frame, a jumper from Moore cutting the Ole Miss lead to six with 8:01 left.
The final quarter was back-and-forth, both teams beginning with dueling 5-0 scoring runs. Austin returned to strong post moves after a quiet middle of the game, scoring nine points in the fourth for the Rebels.
Mississippi head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin then ramped up her full-court press, slowing down the chances of a familiar Gator comeback via fastbreak. UF went without a field goal for three and a half crucial minutes late in the period trying to jump ahead.
Austin and Ole Miss sealed Florida’s fate at the free-throw line, finishing 14-17 at the stripe in the fourth quarter to squash the Gators’ threats and earn them a rematch with No. 1 South Carolina in tomorrow’s semifinal.
Florida now turns its attention to the NCAA Tournament, presumably awaiting its first at-large bid to the Big Dance since 2016. ESPN’s tournament selection show begins at 8 p.m. on March 13.
Contact Caleb Wiegandt at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @CalebWiegandt.