Kiara Smith

Florida’s women’s basketball team had a much-needed rest after splitting a two-game road trip.

The nine-day hiatus allowed UF’s players to focus on their academics -- something coach Cam Newbauer has always stressed throughout his tenure -- with the fall semester coming to a close.

But the break did not affect Florida’s performance on Tuesday night, as the Gators defeated Mercer 71-50 at the O’Connell Center.

The Bears (3-8) ambushed the Gators (7-3) early with the full-court press.

Mercer’s suffocating defense forced three UF turnovers just 75 seconds into the game, which led to four points at the other end.

Guard Kristina Moore, who celebrated her 20th birthday on Tuesday, opened the scoring for Florida at the 8:15 mark with a three-pointer. The sophomore sparked UF’s offense with nine points on 3-of-4 shooting from behind the arc in the first quarter, but those were her only buckets of the night.

Moore was called for two fouls in the first eight minutes and was subsequently replaced by guard Nina Rickards.

The Gators took a 24-14 lead after the first quarter despite only two points from guard Kiara Smith, the team’s floor general and second-leading scorer.

Smith, however, was more aggressive in the second quarter, driving into the paint constantly in search of shooting fouls to ignite her offense. The redshirt junior dropped seven points on 1-of-2 shooting from the floor and 5-of-6 shooting from the charity stripe in the second period.

She finished the night with a game-high 21 points (her highest tally in two seasons at Florida), 10 rebounds and five assists. Her double-double against Mercer was Smith’s first of the season.

Guards Lavender Briggs and Ariel Johnson were the only other players to score in double-digits for Florida, recording 10 points apiece.

UF limited the Bears to 28.6 percent (10-of-35) shooting from the field in the first half and went into the locker room with a 44-26 advantage.

The Gators’ stifling defense carried over to the second half.

Mercer found the bottom of the net for the first time at the 6:55 mark of the third quarter when guard Tia Benvenuti drained a jumper to end her team’s scoring drought.

With the Bears struggling to find any sort of offense, they failed to make a dent into Florida’s 18-point lead (60-42 after the third quarter).

They didn’t have any luck in the final stanza either.

Mercer was held to just eight points, while Florida scored 11 to get back in the win column.

"We take it one step at a time,” Newbauer said in a release after the victory. “We're not thinking about our Christmas tournament until we got this one out of the way. Now we'll move on to our next two opponents and take it game by game."

 

Contact Bryan Matamoros at [email protected] and follow him at @bryan_2712

Bryan Matamoros is a sports writer for The Alligator. He has previously covered UF men's and women's golf, women's lacrosse and women's soccer. Now, he is on the Florida baseball and women's basketball beats.