Junior Jaterra Bonds scored a season-high 21 points, freshman January Miller scored career-best 17 points and senior Jennifer George posted her 25th career double-double but Florida fell just short at sixth-ranked and preseason Southeastern Conference favorite Kentucky, 76-69, on Thursday in the league opener for both teams.
The Gators (11-4, 0-1 SEC) were within two points, 60-58, with 6:03 remaining but went cold from the floor, missing their next six shots and the Wildcats (13-1, 1-0 SEC) took advantage by scoring six straight points and led 66-58 with 3:18 remaining.
Kayla Lewis ended the run with an inside jumper, but the teams traded scores and Florida’s deficit alternated between six and eight points for the next couple of minutes and couldn’t string back-to-back scoring opportunities until Bonds converted two free throws and George hit an inside bucket with 21 seconds remaining that brought the Gators within four, 72-68.
UK made 4-of-6 free throws in the final 20 seconds to secure its 30th consecutive win in Memorial Coliseum, as well as its program-record 12th straight overall.
“I thought our players fought really, really hard and in the second half did a great job of taking care of the basketball,” UF head coach Amanda Butler said. “We won the rebounding battle and got ourselves to the free throw line like we wanted to and had some really good individual performances.
“January Miller had a career-high, Jaterra was money from the free throw line so there were a lot of positives for us,” Butler continued. “You have to give Kentucky a lot of credit. This building is really hard to win in and I thought we put up a great fight. There are a lot of positives for us to move forward into our next battle.”
Bonds tied a program-record by hitting 11-of-11 free throws en route to her game-high offensive output, while Miller hit 5-of-7 from the floor, including 2-of-3 three-pointers with 5-of-6 from the line. George recorded 14 points, a game-high 11 rebounds with a game-high three steals for the Gators, who committed just three turnovers in the second half after 16 in the opening 20 minutes of the game. Florida held a 40-36 rebounding edge in the game.
UK entered the game leading the nation in turnover margin at +12.9, having forced at least 21 turnovers in every game this year while averaging 15.8 per game. The Wildcats committed 16 miscues overall, but just four in the second half.
“I don’t want this to sound like I’m not giving Kentucky credit because they are a great team. I really felt like in the beginning of the game we had a lot of nerves,” Butler said. “We made some rushed decisions that we did a better job of being in control of in the second half. We talked about composure all week long and got to that point but we had to fight to get there.”
A’dia Mathies, last year’s SEC Player of the Year and the preseason favorite this season, scored 20 points for Kentucky to lead four Wildcats in double-figure scoring. Junior transfer DeNesha Stallworth posted 17 points and 10 rebounds for UK, which shot 43.5 percent overall and hit 9-of-23 three-pointers.
Kentucky scored the last five points of the first half and carried that momentum into the second where they scored the first seven points and took a 46-35 lead.
Florida calmly answered with the next six points that started a 12-2 run and the Gators were within one point, 48-47, with 13:29 remaining.
Bria Goss, last year’s SEC Freshman of the Year, halted the run with a jumper and Jennifer O’Neill followed with a pair of three-pointers that had the Wildcats lead back to nine with 9:55 on the clock.
Vicky McIntyre hit two more free throws for Florida before O’Neill hit a deep jumper and again UK’s lead was at nine points, 58-49, with 9:21 remaining.
Miller drove hard to the hoop and was fouled and converted two free throws before nailing her second three-pointer to spark a 6-0 spurt that had Florida within two, 58-56, with 6:54 remaining.
Stallworth hit a jumper, but George answered with a tough inside shot and Florida was again within two points, 60-58, with 6:03 on the clock.
Florida went cold from the floor, missing its next six shots, as UK scored six straight points and led 66-58 with 3:18 remaining.
Kayla Lewis ended the run with an inside jumper, but the teams traded scores and Florida’s deficit alternated between six and eight points for the next couple of minutes.
To the disappointment of a huge hometown crowd that made the trip from nearby Union, Ky., freshman Sydney Moss, UF’s second-leading scorer this year, was whistled for her fourth personal foul with 10:21 remaining and struggled all night in what was her toughest collegiate showing to date.
The Gators committed a turnover on their first two possessions and Kentucky took advantage both times with buckets.
Florida managed a shot on its next two offensive trips down the court, but missed and the Wildcats collected the rebound.
After two more UK points from the free throw line, Bonds finally got the Gators on the scoreboard with an eight-foot jumper from the side 2:50 into the game.
The Wildcats came back with a three-pointer and stretched their early lead to seven points, but Florida regrouped with the next four, as Christin Mercer connected on a tough inside jumper and Bonds converted a pair of free throws and brought the Gators within three.
Kentucky scored the next four points and held again held a seven-point spread and the teams traded scores for the next two minutes before Mathies stepped with a three-pointer and an inside bucket and gave the Wildcats an 11-point lead, 23-12, with 11:30 remaining in the first half and Florida called a timeout.
The Gators refused to fold and rallied with a 9-0 run, as January Miller sparked the march with a pair of run-out layups in a 28-second span. Bonds then converted her seventh three-point play of the year and followed that with mid-range jumper and Florida was within two, 23-21, with 7:30 to play.
Stallworth halted the run with a three-pointer from the top of the arc and hit a bucket inside before Samarie Walker sank two free throws to cap a 7-0 run and had UK back out in front, 30-21.
George got on the board with her first bucket at the 5:48 mark to stop the spurt, as Mathies hit another jumper for the nine-point lead with 5:32 on the clock.
Miller struck for the Gators with a six-footer from the side and Lewis put in an offensive rebound and the Gators were within five. After a Mathies bucket, Vicky McIntyre nailed two free throws, as did George and Bonds and had Florida within one point, 34-32, with 2:53 remaining in the first.
Both teams missed shots on their respective next offensive possessions, before George put back an offensive rebound and gave Florida its first lead of the game, 35-34, with 1:37.
Kentucky came right back 27 seconds later with a jumper from Bria Goss, forced Florida’s 16th turnover of the period and capitalized when Kastine Evens drilled a three-pointer with 31 seconds remaining to close the first-half scoring and the Wildcats leading 39-35.
The Gators hit 43.3 percent (13-30) from the floor, while UK nailed 48.3 percent of its shots. Bonds and Mathies led their respective teams with 13 points each during the first 20 minutes of action.
Florida returns to action on Sunday when the Gators play host to LSU in the O’Connell Center where tip-off is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET.
Courtesy of UF Communications