The Florida women’s basketball team began Southeastern Conference play 0-1, but found that the most direct path to a league win started – and ended – in the lane.
Dominant inside from start to finish, the Gators got 17 points from forward Marshae Dotson and 14 from center Aneika Henry, interior productivity that led to a stylish 80-65 victory over Alabama before 1,582 at the O’Connell Center Sunday.
The league victory was Florida’s most decisive since March of 2006, when UF throttled Mississippi State 98-83 in the first round of the SEC tournament. The Gators (12-5, 1-1) led by 20 or more points during the last part of the second half, a margin of victory that could be attributed to the ability to score inside.
“(Aneika) did a fantastic job of just making catches,” UF coach Amanda Butler said. “We knew we wanted to do that. We wanted the ball in the paint by whatever means we could accomplish that and we had some success early and I think our players thought Aneika was going to catch whatever they threw in there. Thankfully for us, she did on most occasions. We always want to attack the paint first and let our game grow from there.”
Combined, Dotson and Henry finished 15 of 22 from the field. The Gators shot 56.5 percent and placed four in double figures.
Depree Bowden contributed a game-high 18 points, and Sharielle Smith had 10 to go along with six rebounds. Florida’s offensive efficiency showed early. Seven players scored – and seven passed for at least one assist – in the first half.
In all, UF accounted for 19 assists, two short of its season high of 21 set against Florida Gulf Coast, a first-year Division I program.
“It was crucial on our home floor to begin the SEC season with a win,” Butler said. “You have to defend your home court in SEC play. Anytime you beat an SEC opponent by double figures, you’ve got be proud.”
Henry entered the home SEC opener averaging less than six points a game and had not scored in double digits in her past six games — until Alabama came to town.
“(Scoring) is something she hadn’t done before,” said Tide coach Stephany Smith, whose team was outscored 46-24 in the paint. “And when she did (today), we had no answer for her.”
The game was promoted as an opportunity to welcome back UF women’s basketball alumnae, and this year’s Lady Gators responded with one of their best performances. Florida led by as many as 16 points in the first half, but Alabama (8-9, 1-1) stayed within 10 points or less most of the game until the Gators stemmed the Tide with an 8-0 second-half run that started with a layup by Henry and ended with a steal and a layup by Bowden, who accounted for five steals, the last of which led to a 19-point UF margin late in the second half.
“I told myself I had to try to find different ways to score,” said Bowden, who scored just three points in Thursday’s road loss to Kentucky. “I tried to deny the ball and get steals. I wasn’t aggressive in the Kentucky game. I knew I had to be aggressive this game.”
Alabama was led by Dedrea Magee’s 17 points. UA tallied eight 3-pointers, matching a season-high for a UF foe this season.
Florida has won eight straight at home; however, the Gators return to SEC road competition when they visit Arkansas Sunday for a 3 p.m. tipoff.