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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Gators women’s basketball falls flat in SEC opener against No. 1 Gamecocks

Florida struggled to contain South Carolina on either end of the court Thursday night

Freshman guard Leila Reynolds drives in the lane during Florida's 89-66 loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024.
Freshman guard Leila Reynolds drives in the lane during Florida's 89-66 loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024.

Starting conference play with a matchup against the top-ranked team in the country is no easy task. But that knowledge did not do much to soften the blow in Florida’s defeat at the hands of the undefeated South Carolina Gamecocks.

The Florida Gators women’s basketball team (9-4, 0-1 SEC) suffered an 89-66 loss to the No. 1 Gamecocks (13-0, 1-0 SEC) in the team’s 2023-24 SEC opener Thursday night. The game proved to be a mismatch from the get-go. South Carolina took a double-digit lead early on in the first quarter, and Florida never managed to trim it down to single digits.

“Obviously, their first quarter and third quarter was where they really separated from us,” Gators head coach Kelly Rae Finley said. “There’s a reason that they’re the No. 1 team in the country. They are good on both ends of the floor, they play together as a team and they share the ball really well.”

Senior guard Leilani Correa served as a bright spot for the Gators on the night. Correa finished with 27 points on 11-for-20 shooting. She nearly sparked a Florida comeback with a dynamic second quarter performance, but this momentum quickly fizzled out after the halftime break. 

Looking beyond Correa’s standout performance, senior center Ra Shaya Kyle racked up 12 points and three rebounds. Conversely, senior guard Aliyah Matharu, who normally serves as the focal point of Florida’s offense, had one of her worst performances of the season. Matharu shot 2-for-17 from the field and 0-for-9 from 3-point range. She finished the evening with just seven points.

For the Gamecocks, sophomore guard Raven Johnson led the way with 16 points, five assists and four steals. Senior guard Te-Hina Paopao and junior guard Bree Hall chipped in with a combined 32 points, while senior center Kamilla Cardoso secured a double-double with 10 points and 15 rebounds. Sophomore forward Ashlyn Watkins tallied up six blocks on the night as well.

South Carolina made it clear from the opening tipoff they had no intentions to take it easy on the Gators. On the fourth play of the game, Johnson stripped junior guard Alberte Rimdal and swiftly turned back around, leaving Rimdal in the dust for a fast break layup to claim USC’s first basket of the night. 

From there, the Gamecocks kept rolling. They shot 65% from the field in the first quarter to Florida’s 33%. South Carolina proved to be just as sound on the defensive end as well, from holding the Gators to 1-for-7 shooting from long-range to sending a pair of Florida layups into the stands with two earth-shattering blocks. 

By the end of the first quarter, South Carolina had jumped out to a 32-15 lead. 

Florida’s offense finally started to heat back up thanks in part to Correa carrying the team in the second quarter. The senior guard went 7-for-11 from the field, including 3-for-4 from behind the arc, while the rest of the team shot 1-for-8. At one point, Correa knocked in back-to-back 3-pointers to cut Florida’s deficit to 13 points. 

“My team needed me,” Correa said. “Some of the shots we were taking weren’t falling… Even before the game, I was just locked in and was like — I needed to be ready to go for my team.”

Nevertheless, Correa failed to bring Florida back into the game on her own. The Gators fared much better on both ends as the first half went on, managing to outscore the Gamecocks 19-16 in the quarter. Correa accounted for 17 of those points, but USC still held on to a 48-34 lead at halftime.

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Initially, the Gators hung with the Gamecocks in the second half. But with 8:08 left in the third quarter, Paopao drove past Rimdal and converted a physical and-1 layup to give South Carolina  its first 20-point lead of the evening. Less than 30 seconds later, Hall tacked onto the lead with a jumper of her own. 

On the next possession, Johnson secured another steal and knocked down two free throws after drawing a foul on the fast break. Then, South Carolina senior center Kamila Cardoso and sophomore forward Chloe Kitts chipped in with a pair of layups on the next two possessions. Just like that, the Gamecocks took off on a 15-0 run to extend their lead to 63-34.

By this point, any remaining hopes of a comeback for the Gators had seemingly slipped through their fingers. Florida eventually managed to slow down South Carolina’s offensive momentum, but not before the Gamecocks took a 73-46 lead into the end of the third quarter. 

Once the final buzzer rang, South Carolina had officially clinched an 89-66 victory to begin SEC competition in style.

After coming away with a dominant victory to open up conference play, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley had plenty of praise for Finley’s squad. 

She said this year’s Gators team has the potential to make some noise amid a crowded SEC talent pool.

“They have players at each position that can put the ball in the hole… they’re a stingy defensive team and they’re healthy,” Staley said. “They have already won a lot of basketball games, and they will win a lot of basketball games in our league if they continue to play as aggressively as they did against us. And I know they will.”

The Gators have another tough test ahead Sunday, as they will hit the road to take on the Vanderbilt Commodores. Tipoff is set for 2 p.m. at Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville. The game will be streamed on ESPN+. 

Contact Jack Meyer at Follow him on X @jackmeyerUF.

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Jack Meyer

Jack Meyer is a third-year journalism major and a sports reporter for The Alligator. In his free time, he enjoys running, spending time with friends, playing video games, and watching the Miami Heat and Miami Dolphins.

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