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Friday, June 14, 2024

Aliyah Matharu soars for Gators women’s basketball in thrilling SEC Tournament win

Matharu scored 35 of Florida’s 62 points en route to an upset victory over Vanderbilt

Gators women's basketball senior guard Aliyah Matharu drives to the hoop in the team's loss to Auburn on Sunday, March 3, 2024.
Gators women's basketball senior guard Aliyah Matharu drives to the hoop in the team's loss to Auburn on Sunday, March 3, 2024.

In Greenville, South Carolina, the 2024 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament transformed into the Aliyah Matharu Show late on Thursday night. Matharu dropped a whopping 35 points on the Vanderbilt Commodores to power the Florida Gators women’s basketball team to an upset victory.

The Gators (16-14, 6-11 SEC) shocked the Commodores (22-9, 9-8 SEC) Thursday evening in a 62-59 second round win to cap off Day 2 of the SEC Tournament. 

Florida survived a last-second scare from Vanderbilt in the fourth quarter, with the Commodores nearly erasing a double-digit deficit in the final 10 minutes of play. At one point, they managed to cut UF’s lead down to two points and had an opportunity to take the lead with less than 30 seconds remaining.

But as Vanderbilt junior forward Sacha Washington went up for the potential game-tying layup, UF senior forward Faith Dut met her at the basket and forced a crucial miss to all but seal Florida’s victory. It may have been a closer-cut win than Gators head coach Kelly Rae Finley hoped for, but she still had nothing but praise for her squad after the game.

“We weren’t playing carefully, we were playing to win,” UF head coach Kelly Rae Finley said. “Everybody played their role to the best of their ability tonight.”

Matharu led the charge for the Gators in nearly every way imaginable Thursday. In addition to her 35 points, Matharu led the team with eight rebounds and four steals while maintaining a 14-for-25 clip from the field. 

She remained consistent with her scoring all night long, scoring nine or more points in all but one quarter. UF senior guard Zippy Broughton also tallied 10 points and five rebounds of her own. Senior forward Faith Dut controlled the paint with five points and seven rebounds.

Vanderbilt junior guard Iyana Moore led her squad with 20 points on 7-for-18 shooting, while freshman forward Khamil Pierre and junior forward Sacha Washington each secured a double-double. Pierre finished the evening with 16 points and 15 rebounds, while Washington collected 10 points and 11 rebounds.

Florida started out the evening red-hot from the field. Dut opened up the action with a floater to get the Gators on the scoreboard first. After Moore drilled a 3 for the Commodores, Matharu sliced through the paint on back-to-back possessions for a pair of physical layups.

Matharu kept on firing away as the opening period went on. After Vanderbilt briefly took an 8-7 lead, the Gators senior guard soared to the hoop for another lay-in and knocked down a three to put her squad back up by four. 

“I was so locked in when [coach] Kelly was giving her pregame speech,” Matharu said. “Nothing could knock me off my path in what I was thinking and how I wanted to lead my team tonight. I just stuck with it, and I had the hot hand.”

Coming out of a mid-quarter timeout, Matharu stripped graduate guard Jordyn Cambridge and cruised to the hoop for another fast break bucket. Moore finally responded for Vanderbilt by drawing an and-1 on Matharu, who quickly landed in foul trouble with less than three minutes to go in the period.

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With Florida’s floor general now temporarily sidelined, the Commodores hopped out on a 7-0 run to briefly go up by one. Nevertheless, the Gators quickly jumped back into the driver’s seat and reclaimed a 17-14 lead by the end of the quarter.

Broughton opened up the second quarter with a bang, nailing an and-1 mid-range jumper on UF’s opening possession. But from there, the Gators went cold, missing their next five shots and allowing the Commodores to snatch the lead right back.

Not to be outdone, Matharu came back into the ballgame and drilled a corner 3 to put the Gators back on top. She immediately followed up with another fast break layup. Junior guard Jeriah Warren and Broughton chipped in with a pair of layups of their own to extend Florida’s run to 9-0. 

UF graduate guard Kenza Salgues put the cherry on top of the run with a corner 3 that elicited all sorts of cheers from the Florida bench. After a somewhat rocky start to the quarter, the Gators had now taken a double-digit lead. 

“Everybody is as important as everybody else on this team,” Salgues said. “You just know that you have to be ready to help [get] the win.”

Matharu picked up right where she left off in the third quarter, scoring six in the first two minutes of the second half. Not to be outdone, the Commodores stormed back with a 7-0 run late in the period to cut the deficit back down to five points.

UF junior forward Eriny Kindred and Matharu responded with a pair of layups in the final two minutes of the period to get the Gators back on track. By the end of the third quarter, Florida’s lead sat at 49-40.

Throughout their 2024 SEC slate, the Gators have struggled at times to close out games. Even Finley acknowledged earlier in the season that the team tended to run out of gas in the fourth quarter. But  Thursday, Florida was determined to not let its past come back to haunt them.

“We obviously want to work on finishing in the second half,” Broughton said. “Being able to play… and move together, that’s really important for us.”

Matharu continued to lead the charge throughout the fourth quarter. The Commodores held the Gators scoreless in the first two minutes, but Matharu broke through with a pair of buckets in the paint to put her squad back up by 11.

Still refusing to give in, Vanderbilt responded with another 6-2 run to keep Florida on its toes. Remaining as cool and collected as ever, Matharu pulled up from deep and launched another 3-ball. Swish. Matharu had cracked the 30-point mark on the evening and put the Gators back up by double digits.

With less than three minutes in the game, the Commodores refused to go down without a fight. Vanderbilt strung together a 7-0 run to make it a one-possession game. With 34.7 seconds left on the clock, Florida needed to land one final blow to officially seal this win. 

But instead, the Commodores intercepted the inbound pass and came away with a fast-break score to narrow the deficit to one. Dut subsequently went 1-for-2 at the free-throw line to make it a 61-59 ballgame.

With 21.7 seconds on the clock, it all came down to one final possession. Washington slashed through the paint for the Commodores and went up for the game-tying shot, but Dut trailed right behind her and forced the miss to get the ball back in Broughton’s hands. 

“As the game was winding down, I knew that this was a really important stop,” Dut said. “She did beat me, but I wasn’t just going to stop. I had to keep going… I don’t think that anything else was in my mind other than ‘the ball can’t go in the hoop.’”

Broughton went back to the line for Florida after immediately being fouled. She drained her first free throw, but the second attempt bounced off the rim. 

With no timeouts remaining for the Commodores, Moore charged down the court and chucked up one final hail mary from deep. The shot was no good, and the UF bench erupted in cheers. After a hard-fought second round battle, Florida is still dancing in the SEC Tournament.

Things will not get any easier for the Gators from here. They’ll return to the hardwood Friday to take on the No. 3-seed Ole Miss Rebels. Tip-off is tentatively set for 9:30 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on SEC Network. 

And if Finley’s words are anything to go by, the Gators will not be backing down anytime soon.

“We’ve been fighting as a program all season,” Finley said. “We weren’t perfect [tonight], but you don’t have to be perfect when you’re a really good team.”

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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