For the second time in as many weeks, the Florida Gators couldn’t solve Vanderbilt — lowly Vanderbilt, sitting under .500 for the year and worse than that in SEC play.
The Gators trailed 12-0 and 16-2, and trailed at halftime — by nine — despite tying the game in the second quarter. Entering the fourth quarter, they had an 11-point deficit to erase if they wanted to play another game in the 2022 SEC Tournament.
And that was all before they lost Kiki Smith.
But what Florida also did was never stop fighting. And, ultimately, that got them one of the most memorable wins in recent history.
Zippy Broughton hit two free throws to give the Gators the lead — their first of the day — with 8.2 seconds remaining, and Florida held off one last Vandy possession for a 53-52 win in Thursday’s SEC Tournament second round matchup.
The Commodores controlled the game almost from the tip, with their combination of full-court pressure and swarming half-court zone defense frustrating the Gators as much or more than it did in an upset in Memorial Gym last week. That game saw Florida commit a staggering 28 turnovers — seven Gators had at least three each — and fall, 63-59, despite Smith putting up 18 points, seven rebounds, and six assists.
This one produced an arguably more damaging batch of mistakes for Florida’s offense, as the Gators’ 21 turnovers led to 23 points off turnovers in a game that was destined for a score in the 50s as soon as Vanderbilt cooled off from its hot start. The Commodores shot just 30 percent from the field, and stagnated in their half-court offense, but were able to avoid Florida’s own pressure thanks to the turnovers, and set up Brinae Alexander and Iyana Moore for their combined 34 points.
And Smith struggled for most of the game, going 3-for-13 from the field and handing out six turnovers to just five assists. Nina Rickards, who finished with a team-high 15 points, carried the Gators for much of the first half.
But Smith converted a three-point play early in the fourth quarter to get the Vandy lead to single digits, and Florida chipped away at the deficit until it trailed 48-43 with just over four minutes to play.
That’s when Smith drove right down the lane and encountered contact, which led to her doing a deep split and seemingly suffering a significant right knee injury before crumpling to the floor. After agonizing moments of silence, she would be helped off the court in obvious discomfort and without putting weight on her right leg.
And in her absence, Florida would finish its comeback.
Jordyn Merritt hit the two free throws awarded on the foul on Smith, and Zippy Broughton scored Florida’s next six points to turn three three-point leads into one-point advantages.
Then Vandy’s Sacha Washington missed both free throws with 11 seconds remaining, and Rickards got to the line for potential go-ahead shots with 8.2 seconds to play.
All that was left for Florida to do was defend the last Vandy possession, with Merritt doing so admirably and without fouling by smothering a Moore drive.
After the game, Kelly Rae Finley cried in both a postgame huddle with her players and during an interview with the SEC Network’s Steffi Sorensen. When Sorensen asked how the Gators pulled off their comeback, Finley, through tears, choked out “I don’t know,” then handed the interview off to Broughton.
“Long story short,” she said, “we did it for Kiki.”
After regaining her composure, Finley got a second chance to explain what the win means.
“I just think it just shows the heart and the love and the care that our team has. And that when we pour into each other — whether you play, didn’t play, whatever the role was, we did it to the best of our ability when we could’ve given up.
“And we don’t. ‘Cause that’s not what we do.”
Florida will assuredly need to do more — much more — than it did on this day to advance in the SEC Tournament or NCAA Tournament, with or without Smith.
For a day, it did enough to give a stellar season its signature emotional win.