In the two previous meetings between Florida and Kentucky this season, the Gators’ women’s basketball team limited the Southeastern Conference’s Player of the Year, A’dia Mathies, to just 16 total points.
Friday, Mathies scored 24 points (21 in the second half), helping Kentucky erase an early 14-point deficit and beat Florida 71-67.
With the loss, the Gators (19-12, 8-8) are eliminated from the SEC Tournament and must hope for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky continues on to the semifinals of the SEC Tournament.
It was all Florida early on in this one.
The Gators used a 14-0 run spanning a four-minute stretch to take an early first-half lead. An Azania Stewart layup gave Florida a 20-6 lead with 12:46 remaining in the first half.
Jennifer George led the Gators with 18 points, but it was Stewart who carried the team as George spent much of the game on the bench in foul trouble. Stewart posted a season-high in points with 15 and rebounds with 12.
“Z [Azania Stewart] was all heart today,” Gators coach Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick said on the Gators Radio Network. “This is the postseason, this is her last season and she’s capable of that every ball game.”
The fired-up Gators forced Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell to use two timeouts in the first 10 minutes of the game to try and stop the bleeding.
Down 14, Mitchell turned to his star, Mathies. Her three-pointer with 12:26 left in the first half, her only points in the opening half, sparked Kentucky’s 11-0 run to pull itself back in the game.
At halftime, the Gators had a 32-25 lead.
Florida pushed its lead back to 13 by opening the second half on a 6-0 run. A Ndidi Madu jumper with 18:18 left in the second half gave Florida a 38-25 lead.
However, Florida was unable to hold its double-digit lead. A three-pointer by Kastine Evans, one of Kentucky’s eight three-pointers on the game, started a 13-5 run for Kentucky.
Each time Florida was able to create a bit of breathing room, Kentucky responded with a momentum-building three to start a run.
Mathies connected on three three-pointers in the game. Keyla Snowden, who was selected as the SEC Co-Sixth Woman of the Year along with Deana Allen, connected on four threes of her own.
The duo of Mathies and Snowden combined for 41 points in the game.
Despite the play of Kentucky’s two stars, it was Florida that led 63-62 with 3:09 remaining in the second half.
However, it was Jennifer George’s trip to the free-throw line, looking to extend the Gators’ lead with just less than three minutes remaining in the second half, that painted a picture of the Gators’ season pretty well.
George missed the first one, barely drawing iron. Her second free throw was off the mark, as well.
Attempting to get the offensive rebound, Lanita Bartley went over the back of Mathies. It was her fifth foul.
As a team, the Gators were just 12-20 from the free throw line. George was a paltry 2-7.
That miss ultimately sunk the Gators.
With George’s double-double mark and the three-point shooting of Jordan Jones, Bartley’s presence on the team often goes overlooked. Clearly, the Gators are a different team without her.
“It made a huge difference there at the end,” Kirkpatrick said, speaking about not having Bartley on the floor.
Florida continued to cling to a small lead in the waning minutes but to no avail.
A Bria Goss layup with 1:24 left in the second half gave Kentucky the lead, one it never gave back.
After the game, Kirkpatrick was quick to point to the foul situation as the reason the Gators missed another golden opportunity to get a season-defining win.
“We were fouling them too much,” she said. “We knew we were going to have trouble guarding their dribble penetration entering into this game, and we could have done a better job of that. Our answer to that was fouling rather than playing tough defense and limiting them to one shot.”
Perhaps it was the fact the Gators were playing in consecutive days. The team, full of energy to begin the game, looked exhausted near the end.
Given a full complement of rest, perhaps George makes a few more free throws. Maybe neither her nor Bartley get in such quick foul trouble.
In postseason play, teams have to perform on short rest. For the most part, the Gators did just that.
Down the stretch, it was not enough.
Now, Florida must wait to see if it had done enough to earn an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament.
While Friday’s loss was certainly gut-wrenching, Kirkpatrick said it was another testament to the fact the Gators have the talent to play with the nation’s best teams.
To her, there is no question where the Gators deserve to end up.
“I’m going to be shocked and surprised if we are not in the NCAA Tournament,” she said. “I think we’ve built a great resume, we’ve shown here we can compete with the best, with a top-ten team in the country, three times in a row. We don’t know where we are going to go, but all eyes are on the NCAA Tournament.”
Follow Gator Country writer Phillip Heilman on Twitter at phillip_heilman.