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Florida guard Nina Rickards sizes up a Georgia defender in the Gators' 82-77 loss to the Bulldogs Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023.
Florida guard Nina Rickards sizes up a Georgia defender in the Gators' 82-77 loss to the Bulldogs Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023.

The Gators are in the midst of their lowest point of the season. Florida dropped four out of its last five games, all against Southeastern Conference opponents. 

UF was scheduled to play two games against SEC teams with the opportunity to get back in the win column last week. It took on the Tennessee Lady Volunteers on the road Jan. 19.  

Florida got off to a hot start in Knoxville and entered the second quarter with a three-point lead. Aggressive attacks to the basket and high defensive intensity anchored the Gators’ early run. They held the Lady Vols to just 4-23 from the field and 1-8 from 3-point range in the first.

However, Tennessee dominated after the opening quarter. The Lady Vols took the lead early in the second quarter and never looked back. They outscored the Gators 62-41 in the final three quarters.

Senior guard KK Deans and junior center Ra Shaya Kyle spearheaded the scoring for Florida, contributing 13 points each. Kyle also grabbed 10 rebounds to give her a double-double.

The Gators were inefficient on offense; they shot 32.8% from the field. Their inability to make shots throughout the contest hindered Florida’s ability to keep the game close.

Tennessee was the more physical team on the glass. The Lady Vols grabbed 18 offensive rebounds. They scored 20 second-chance points, which allowed them to cruise to a comfortable 18-point victory.

The loss to Tennessee handed Florida its fourth straight defeat, dropping its record to 12-7 overall and 1-5 in the SEC. The outcome of this game was a familiar feeling for the Gators. Early leads and the inability to close became a pattern for Florida during its four-game skid.

The Gators returned to the Stephen C. O’Connell Center Sunday against Vanderbilt. The Commodores entered the matchup winless in six games against SEC teams.

Florida got off to another quick start, led by nine first-quarter points by senior Gators guard Nina Rickards. Its defense was dominant in the first quarter once again. It held Vanderbilt to 11 points on just 4-16 shooting.

Florida carried its momentum throughout the rest of the game. It entered the second half leading the Commodores 42-21 and never relinquished the lead. 

The Gators stuck to their formula of attacking the basket and playing hard defense. They outscored Vanderbilt 48-24 in the paint and held them to 27.9% shooting for the game. 

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The Gators’ defensive effort helped them survive a drop-off in scoring in the second half and ultimately allowed them to close out the game.

The win marked Florida’s second win of the year against an SEC opponent; its record improved to 13-7 overall and 2-5 in SEC play. The victory also ended the Gators’ four-game losing streak. 

Inconsistencies on defense plagued the Gators during the stretch. Florida held its opponents to less than 15 points in the first quarter in four of its last five games. Opponents shot just 29% from the field in that quarter over the past five games. 

Florida has also been outscored after nearly every first quarter during this span. 

“I would say it starts in practice,” Rickards said. “We just have to be more consistent and focused in practice and keep the same energy and pace we start the game off with.”

All of these games have been within their reach, but improvements are needed to translate them into wins, Florida head coach Kelly Rae Finley said.

“I like our team’s effort, our intensity and competitiveness,” Finley said. “We just have to learn how to win.”

Florida relies heavily on its upperclassmen. Only one freshman is listed on its active roster. The offense runs through players like Deans and Rickards in close matchups. 

Rickards said losing these tight games has forced the team to come closer together and helped them become more comfortable playing with each other. 

“I think after every game — win or loss — is a lesson learned,” Rickards said.

Florida has nine regular-season games remaining, all against SEC opponents. 

The Gators will return to the court Jan. 30 at 7 p.m. to play the Auburn Tigers on the road. The game will be broadcast on SEC Network.

Contact Austin Stirling at Follow him on Twitter @austinstirlingg

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Austin Stirling

Austin Stirling is a third-year journalism major and sports reporter for The Alligator. He previously covered Gators women's basketball and is primarily covering soccer during the fall 2023 semester. He is a huge New York sports fan and is hoping the Jets can be a respectable football team for once in his life this season.

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