After taking Jacksonville University’s best shot, the Florida women’s basketball team responded in a big way. The Gators led by as many as 20 points in the first half but saw their lead trimmed to one early in the second half before responding with a 26-3 run on their way to a 74-51 victory over the Dolphins Monday night in the home opener at the Stephen J. O’Connell Center.
Florida (1-1), which struggled defensively in an 88-86 season-opening loss at Florida Gulf Coast University last Friday, had no such problems against Jacksonville (0-1). The Gators held the Dolphins to 16-of-68 shooting overall, which was keyed by a second half during which the visitors made just 4 of 33 shots and 18 points.
“I told the team that our goal is to be aggressive,” said Florida senior guard Sha Brooks, who scored 14 of her 16 points in the second half on 5-of-7 shooting. “If we come out and play aggressive then we’ll do our part and it showed tonight.”
The win erased the bitter taste of Friday’s loss to Gulf Coast, in which the Gators allowed 12-of-21 shooting from beyond the 3-point arc.
“That didn’t sit well with any of us,” said Florida junior guard Steffi Sorensen, who spent her freshman year playing for FGCU. “So we had some pretty hard days of practice on Saturday and Sunday and we knew that this was going to be a big game for us. We stepped it up and the whole team played well together and obviously the score reflected that.”
Jacksonville, which knocked off Florida in the first-ever meeting between the schools last season, was unable to ride the momentum of a 15-0 run that overlapped the first and second halfs and made the score 38-37 with 18:16 remaining.
“It was a big win for us,” Florida coach Amanda Butler said. “Jacksonville’s a fantastic team and obviously we have a lot of respect for them going back to last year with them introducing themselves to us. I was proud of the way that our team mentally bounced back from the disappointment we experienced Friday.”
Perhaps the player who stepped up the most for the Gators was 6-3 senior forward Aneika Henry, who drew two fouls and played just one minute in the loss to FGCU
Against Jacksonville, Henry was dominant off the bench. She made 6-of-7 shots and scored 12 points and helped the Gators to a 48-14 scoring edge in the paint.
“I was just ready,” Henry said. “We had just come off a big loss and I was just ready to play.”
Henry scored six points during Florida’s big 26-3 run, which saw the hosts hold the Dolphins without a field goal for 8:40.
“She wasn’t a factor in Friday’s game and she wants to be someone that has an impact,” Butler said.
Florida held Jacksonville to 1-of-10 shooting and forced four turnovers in building an 18-3 lead.
The Gators jumped on the Dolphins quickly and built a 32-12 lead, thanks to a 14-of-19 shooting start. Florida attacked the smaller Jacksonville frontline and scored 16 points in the paint before the Dolphins finally managed to score down low.
“The way that we started the game was the story to me,” Butler said. “We set the tone. We got the first punch in and kind of got them back on their heels, as opposed to us being back on our heels. We’re very good when we’re up on our toes and when we’re the aggressor and that’s what we saw tonight.”
Jacksonville finally started to claw back and made three shots from 3-point range and scored 15 of the final 17 points of the half and went into intermission trailing 38-33.
The Dolphins got to within one, but Brooks scored 10 points during Florida’s large run to put the game away. Jacksonville missed 15-of-16 shots overall to start the second half and went on to make just 2-of-14 shots from beyond the arc over the final 20 minutes.
“Obviously, we shot the ball very poorly,” said Jacksonville coach Jill Dunn, whose team returned four starters from last year’s 23-9 squad. “We weren’t taking good shots and we were rushing shots. Obviously, their defense was making us rush shots and their big people really affected us. We made a great run there in the first half, but unfortunately, we never really picked that momentum back up in the second.”
Marshae Dotson finished with 12 points and eight rebounds for Florida, which outrebounded Jacksonville, 44-39. Sorensen and Henry contributed seven rebounds each for the Gators. Brooks was Florida’s leader in both assists (five) and steals (three).
Virginia Gregorie led Jacksonville with 12 points. The Dolphins turned the ball over 20 times, which helped the Gators get out in transition and hold a 15-4 edge in fastbreak points.
Florida returns to action Thursday at 5:30 p.m. against Stetson. The Florida men’s team will follow with a game against Southern Utah.
FRIENDS IN THE STANDS: During her prep career, Sorensen scored 2,147 points at Bartram Trail High School, which enabled her to become St. Johns County’s all-time leading scorer. On Monday, she had a good deal of support from family and friends in the stands. “I had quite a few there,” Sorensen said. “I’m from Jacksonville and it’s not a very far drive, so I’m always happy to see them in the stands.”
CHASING AFTER PAGE: Meanwhile, Brooks started her 93rd consecutive game, which is the second longest in program history, trailing only Murriel Page (1994-98), who started the final 109 games of her career.
THIS AND THAT: With the win, Florida avoided its first 0-2 start since the 1992-93 season, when Butler was in her junior year suiting up for the Gators. … Florida is now 27-8 all-time in the team’s first home game of the season. … The Gators have now won nine consecutive games at home against non-conference opponents. … The 23-point margin of victory was the largest for Florida in a home opener since it drubbed North Florida by 41 in 2006.