The Florida Gators’ dominant first-half defensive wasn’t enough. Turnovers allowed Kentucky to climb back into the game. Florida senior guards KK Deans and Nina Rickards carried the load offensively, but they couldn’t fend off Kentucky’s comeback.
Florida (12-6, 1-4 SEC) was defeated at home by Kentucky (9-9, 1-5 SEC) 81-75 Sunday after a dominant second half by the Wildcats.
Deans led the Gators in scoring for her second straight 21-point game; she hit five 3-pointers in her effort. The West Virginia transfer was honored for hitting 1,000 career points prior to tip-off.
“She always has the ability to create her own shots,” said Florida head coach Kelly Rae Finley. “She’s definitely a competitor.”
Turnovers and missed free throws plagued Florida throughout the game. The Gators committed 24 turnovers and shot just 15-28 from the charity stripe.
“Obviously they had a great swarm all night,” Finley said. “Then, we didn’t take care of business at the free throw line.”
Florida senior forward Faith Dut scored the first points of the game with a hook shot over a Kentucky defender. Junior center Ra Shaya Kyle hit a pair of contested layups on the next two possessions to give Florida an early 6-2 lead.
Florida hit a cold stretch after its 3-3 start from the field. However, it missed its next six shot attempts. Early success from the free throw line and disciplined defense allowed the Gators to maintain their early 13-8 lead over the Wildcats.
Florida sophomore guard Alberte Rimdal ended the shooting drought with a contested finger-roll layup to give the Gators a 15-8 advantage. Rickards closed out the first quarter with a pull-up jumper from the free throw line.
The Gators entered the second quarter with an 18-10 lead.
Deans began the second quarter scorching hot. She hit four consecutive 3-pointers for the Gators. Florida’s lead ballooned to 16 after Deans led a 12-4 run in the first two minutes of the quarter.
The Florida defense suffocated Kentucky’s offense early on; Kentucky went over 8 minutes without recording a field goal. Their cold spell finally ended when freshman guard Kennedy Cambridge made a layup to spark a 7-0 Wildcats run.
Junior Kentucky forward Maddie Scherr hit a layup to cut the Gators’ lead to 12.
Kentucky graduate student guard Robyn Benton rose up and hit a contested free-throw-line jumper to bring the Wildcats within single-digits. Junior forward Ajae Petty hit a tough layup and drew a foul to cut Florida’s lead to 32-27 with just over 2 minutes remaining in the half.
Florida went into halftime with a 36-30 lead after Deans made a free throw to close out the quarter.
Rickards scored first for Florida out of the halftime break. She drove to the hoop and finished a contested layup. Scherr made a jump shot, but Rickards — a Queens, New York, native — hit her second straight layup on the following possession.
Florida freshman guard Myka Perry pushed the Gators’ lead back to two possessions by hitting a spot-up three to push the score to 44-38. UF called a timeout after they forced a Kentucky turnover with 4:55 remaining in the third quarter.
The Wildcats continued to fight throughout the heavily contested third quarter, but Florida refused to relinquish its narrow lead. Sophomore Kentucky guard Jada Walker reeled in a long fast-break pass and hit a layup to cut Florida’s lead to just one.
The Gators answered with yet another tough layup by Rickards on the next possession. Scherr hit a pair of free throws to give Kentucky its first lead of the game, 50-49.
She then hit a buzzer-beating, mid-range floater to give the Wildcats a 53-51 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Kentucky began the fourth quarter on fire. It went on an 8-0 run across just 34 seconds and hit three consecutive field goals to push its lead to 61-53. The Gators trailed 68-60 after Benton hit a triple with 5 minutes left in the game.
Rickards banked in a fast-break layup to cut the deficit to just six, jumpstarting a 6-0 Florida run. She hit a contested layup through a foul two possessions later. The senior missed the free throw and Florida trailed Kentucky by just two points.
The Gators continued to battle hard throughout the final minutes of the quarter. However, turnovers and missed free throws continued to be an issue. Deans hit a step-back 3-pointer with one minute left to keep Florida in the game, down 76-71.
Florida’s attempt at a comeback fell short despite its last-ditch effort. Benton hit two free throws following an intentional foul to seal the win for the Wildcats.
The Gators will next play the Lady Vols at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in Knoxville, Tennessee. The game will be broadcast on SEC Network.
Contact Austin Stirling at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @austinstirlingg.
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.