Florida’s first basket of the 2022 NCAA Tournament came off a smart bit of fine offense, with the Gators rotating the ball to get Faith Dut open underneath the basket to take a 2-0 lead against UCF.
Of course, Dut wouldn’t finish the game on the floor — becoming the third Gators starter to suffer an injury in the last three games of a superb season — and Florida would only score 50 more points in the game.
But while the short-handed Gators lost to the Knights for the first time in program history, 69-52, it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Florida repeatedly refused to let double-digit leads get too large through the first three quarters, closing to within four points late in the third period after trailing by as many as nine points in the first quarter, 15 points in the second, and 14 in the third. After a Nina Rickards layup off a no-look, behind-the-head Zippy Broughton assist got Florida as close as 41-37, though, UCF responded with an 8-0 run to close the period, six of those points coming from forward Brittney Smith, who poured in a game- and career-high 26 off the bench for the Knights.
And in the fourth quarter, last gasps from the Gators got them within nine, but no closer, as a stifling UCF defense finished off a day of holding Florida to 30 percent shooting from the field and 20 percent from three. UCF also forced 16 Florida turnovers and committed just six of its own.
Broughton and Rickards combined for 29 points, but no other Gator had more than five, and forwards Dut, Floor Toonders, Emanuely de Oliviera, and Taliyah Wyche combined to go 4-for-16 from the floor, largely working against formidable UCF rim protector Masseny Kaba, who had 14 points, six rebounds, and five blocks.
For the Gators, this was an expected outcome after a valiant performance without both Kiki Smith and Jordyn Merritt, who had figured into most of the success that Florida enjoyed en route to its first NCAA Tournament berth in half a decade. If it was frustrating because of who could not lace up and ball, it was also a fitting testament to the fight of those who could that UCF did not put the Gators away until late.
For Kelly Rae Finley, this was a swan song for her first team that contained enough sour notes to reveal how much deeper the Gators’ roster will likely need to be to go from being plucky upstarts to SEC or NCAA Tournament contenders.
For now, Florida’s season was likely enough to revitalize fan interest in what was a moribund program — and now comes the difficult second act of fanning flames instead of letting embers die out.
The 2022 Gators were the spark. Here’s hoping sustainability follows.