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Friday, June 14, 2024

Florida women’s basketball opens SEC Tournament with hard-fought win over Missouri

Four Gators finished with 10 or more points on the afternoon

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.

The Gators women’s basketball team was less than two minutes away from an opening-round victory in the 2024 SEC Tournament. Holding on to a 62-57 lead, Florida just needed to put one final nail in the coffin to bury the Missouri Tigers for good. 

UF junior guard Jerriah Warren received the ball at the top of the key. She maneuvered her way through the paint, euro stepping past multiple Tigers defenders before pulling off an acrobatic finish at the rim. Warren had officially landed the dagger in Florida’s first round win.

The Gators (15-14, 5-11 SEC) came away with a 66-60 victory over the Tigers (11-19, 2-14 SEC) Wednesday afternoon on Day 1 of the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament. Florida led by as many as 20 points and trailed by as many as six in the contest. In the end, the team managed to hold on in a tightly contested fourth quarter to come out on top.

“Basketball is a game of runs,” Florida head coach Kelly Rae Finley said. “We’ve talked about it as a team, just limiting their runs and extending ours. The team that can get to stopping the opponent’s run just a little bit quicker is usually the team that comes out on top.”

Four Gators finished the matchup in double-figure scoring. Senior guard Leilani Correa led the team with 15 points on 7-for-12 shooting, while junior guard Alberte Rimdal chipped in with 12 points off the bench.

Senior guard Aliyah Matharu and junior guard Jeriah Warren each nearly finished the afternoon with a pair of double-doubles. Matharu racked up 14 points and nine rebounds, while Warren tallied 10 points and eight boards of her own.

Missouri sophomore guard Ashton Judd led her squad with 17 points and seven rebounds, while freshman guard Grace Slaughter scored 14 on a 6-for-15 clip from the field. Senior guard Mama Dembele put up a strong two-way performance for the Tigers as well, finishing with eight points, seven assists and four steals.

Florida initially stumbled out of the gates early in the afternoon. Slaughter scored seven of the Tigers’ first 10 points to power her squad to an early six-point lead in less than three minutes.

As the Gators scrambled to stay alive, Matharu got the team right back on track. The Florida floor general knocked down a mid-range jumper and a 3-ball to cut the deficit back down to one point.

The two squads exchanged blows for the rest of the quarter. After a three-minute offensive dry spell for both sides, sophomore guard Ashton Judd got Missouri back on the scoreboard with a layup over UF junior forward Alexia Diseko. Nonetheless, by the end of the period, the Tigers were hanging on to their 16-13 lead by a thread.

Florida had a strong start to the second quarter. Correa led off the action for the Gators with a pull-up jumper atop of the key, while Warren came through with an up-and-under layup on the following possession to give the Gators their first lead of the game.

Even with her squad now in control, Correa was far from finished. Following a timeout from Missouri, Correa charged down the court and drilled another jumper from the top of the key. On the next possession, she intercepted a pass from Judd and hit Matharu with a dime on the fast break to extend UF’s lead to 21-16. 

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Rimdal eventually decided to get in on the fun as well, drilling a pair of 3-pointers to extend Florida’s lead to double-digits. Just like that, the Gators had blasted off to a 13-3 run and taken control of the ballgame.

Florida kept piling on as the half came to a close. With less than four minutes to go, Matharu exploded past the Missouri defense for a physical finish at the hoop. On the next play, she found freshman guard Laila Reynolds cutting to the basket for a beautiful reverse lay-in. Rimdal sliced through the paint for another easy layup to cap off another quick 6-0 run for the Gators. 

The Tigers did manage to show resistance as the quarter came to a close with a quick bucket and a pair of free throws from senior guard Mama Dembele. But even after Dembele’s scoring spurt, Florida still held on to a comfortable 42-26 lead at the end of the first half.

In the second half, the Gators initially picked up where they left off. Matharu met junior forward Hannah Linthacum at the rim with a resounding chasedown block, which in turn set up a Warren 3-ball on the other end. Correa followed up with a jumper atop the key, while Matharu eventually knocked down a free throw to push Florida’s lead to 20 points.

“I always look to set the pace just by defense, trying to get as many stops as I can,” Matharu said. “Our offense just comes… I just get fired up.”

Refusing to let the game get away from them, the Tigers responded with a 14-0 run to cut the deficit back down to just six points. While Missouri had finally started to find its offensive rhythm, the Gators had completely lost theirs. Florida did not record a single basket for more than four minutes in the period, allowing the Tigers to claw their way right back into the game.

Correa eventually snapped the team’s offensive dry spell with a driving layup near the end of the quarter. But the damage had already been done. By the end of the third, Florida’s lead had shrunk to 50-43.

In the final 10 minutes of play, Correa went back to work. After beginning the fourth quarter with a silky finish in the paint, she drilled a deep 3 to fire her squad back up. Warren followed suit with a corner 3 of her own, and the Gators’ lead had grown back out to double-digits.

“They sped us up a little bit, and they started hitting shots, but we punched back,” Correa said. “We didn’t fall over and die, and that shows our maturity throughout the season.”

But Florida’s newfound cushion did not last long. Missouri immediately came back with an 11-2 run to make it a one-score game.

Eventually, the Gators decided that enough was enough. Rimdal knocked down a mid-range jumper to put Florida back up by two scores. After a two-minute offensive stale, Warren slashed through the paint and euro-stepped past the Missouri defense for an impressive finish. Matharu went on to knock down a pair of free throws to increase Florida’s lead to 66-57. 

With less than a minute now remaining, Missouri entered full-out desperation mode. Freshman guard Abbey Schreake launched a 3 from near the center-court logo to cut the deficit to six. The Tigers forced a turnover on the subsequent possession, giving them one final chance to spark a comeback. 

But with 5.5 seconds left on the clock, graduate forward Hayley Frank’s 3 bounced off the rim and into the hands of the Gators. As the final buzzer rang and the dust finally settled, Florida had narrowly emerged victorious on Day 1 of the SEC Tournament.

Up next for UF is a second round matchup with the Vanderbilt Commodores. Tip-off is tentatively set for 8:30 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on SEC Network.

“[Vanderbilt] has some tremendous players, and obviously, we have the utmost respect for Shea [Ralph] and her staff,” Finley said. “But having an early game today gives us a little time to prepare, to rest our bodies and get a little recovery. It was nice to get in the arena today in preparation for tomorrow.”

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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