Strong finish helps Gators beat #12 Kentucky

As Eleanna Christinaki raced away with the ball, scored, and sunk a free throw to put the Gators up 85-79, the 3,231 fans in attendance went crazy.

Christinaki had just sealed the Gators victory over the No. 12 Kentucky Wildcats, who fought from behind most of the game against Florida’s stingy defense. Christinaki and fellow Florida guard Simone Westbrook (20 points) combined for five steals in the game and, for the most part, kept Kentucky guards Makayla Epps (27 points) and Janee Thompson (16 points) in check. As a team, the Gators forced the Wildcats to turn the ball over a whopping 30 times.

The game started out fast-paced, but Florida’s defense proved to be solid as they jumped out to an early 11-4 lead.

For most of the first quarter, the only production for Kentucky’s offense came from Thompson. She scored the first nine points for the Wildcats. Epps was nowhere to be found and was held to just two points off of free throws. Meanwhile, the Gators were finding scorers in all the right places. G Carlie Needles was hot from deep, F Haley Lorenzen found her mid-range jumper, and Westbrook knocked down two three-pointers to close out the quarter and put the Gators up 22-14.

The second quarter saw the Gators offense cool down just a bit when the Wildcats applied more pressure on Florida’s backcourt.

Kentucky G Maci Morris gave the Gators trouble as she scored 10 points and helped give Kentucky the lead for the middle portion of the period.

At this point Florida needed a boost of energy from the bench and found it in guards Carla Batchelor and January Miller. Miller finished the half with 8 points and worked relentlessly to grab rebounds against Kentucky’s taller frontcourt.

Florida finished the half with momentum and a 43-39 lead.

Coming out of the half, Florida’s offense continued to revolve around their forwards as Ronni Williams and Haley Lorenzen added to Florida’s lead.

The Gators’ backcourt picked up its pace again and started to overwhelm the Wildcats’ star guards. Westbrook picked Thompson’s pocket and scored quickly, then January Miller found Carla Batchelor down low twice to put the Gators up 60-47.

The O’Dome was rocking and Florida seemed like it was not going to be stopped.

Kentucky refused to go away, though.

Makayla Epps worked vigorously to keep her team in the game and the Wildcats cut Florida’s lead down to six only to be one-upped by Simone Westbrook’s three-pointer at the buzzer.

Florida led 63-54 going into the final period.

Haley Lorenzen, who finished with 18 points, started the quarter strong for the Gators. With about five minutes left, Epps and Thompson looked exhausted and it seemed as if Florida would slowly put Kentucky to rest.

But, before you knew it, Kentucky had trimmed Florida’s lead down to five and carried all the momentum into the final minutes.

Kentucky F Evelyn Akhator grabbed key rebounds and scored four of her five points in the final two minutes of play. Florida led 79-77 with 42 seconds left.

Eleanna Christinaki found Ronni Williams down low with a beautiful assist and Williams put in the layup to give the Gators a four-point lead. Epps sped down the court and hit a jumper to bring the game within one possession for Kentucky.

After Christinaki converted 1 of 2 free throws, the Gators defense locked down any sign of offense for Kentucky and forced a jump ball with six seconds to go in the contest.

The Wildcats drew up a play for Epps to shoot a last-second three, but Christinaki stole the inbounds pass and laid the ball in the basket to put the finishing touches on a well-earned 85-79 Florida victory.

Coach Amanda Butler gator-chomped along with the “Rowdy Reptile” student section after the game and marveled over the final moments of Florida’s perfect #UFillTheDome weekend.

“When we’ve got a bunch of Gator Nation in here … I think we can beat anybody,” said Butler post-game.

Next Up: Florida hosts No. 10 Texas A&M on Thursday February 4 at 7:00 PM.

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