Strong start and finish propel #22 Gators over Vanderbilt

The No.22 Florida Gators (20-6, 8-5 SEC) raced out to an early 11 point lead and watched that dwindle. Then as the final minutes of the game with Vanderbilt (15-11, 4-9 SEC) continued, the Gators pulled away for a hard fought 79-67 win. This version of the Gators is now the 15th team in program history to record 20 wins in a season.

Gator true freshman guard Eleanna Christinaki scored a career high 22 points including 11 straight points in a seven minute span of the fourth-quarter to lead the Gators in the win at home in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. Christinaki finished seven of 11 from the field and added four rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals.

“Our theme going into today was domination by resuscitation,” Christinaki said shortly after the game. “Today was my day. Tomorrow it will be someone else. We have a deep bench and that is what makes us a great team.”

Although Florida has won three of the last four games against the Commodores, Thursday night’s win was the first at home against Vanderbilt since 2006.

After giving up the lead in the first half for a short time, Florida took a two point lead into the half and never trailed in the second half. Florida jumped out to a bit of a lead again in the early minutes of the second half, however the game went tight until late in the fourth quarter when Florida made free throws and Vanderbilt missed shots at the other end.

Vanderbilt head coach Melanie Balcomb was a bit frustrated at the starts of both halves and the speed of which Florida plays the game.

“(We got) down early, this time it was 15-4 before we worked ourselves back into the game,” Balcomb said. “But that start has to make you want to pull your hair out.

“I kind of thought that would happen here. This team is very fast, and they go faster than anybody. You can’t simulate that in practice, so I was concerned we were going to get down quickly. I started Miaya (Seawright) for defense and to really try to do a better job of really trying to win, get three stops and start off better. Obviously, the strategy did not work. I knew we would come back and have a chance to win the game. I’m just disappointed, again, on how we started the second half. (It was the) same thing. You have to win the couple first minutes of each half. I think that is really important, and we’re not doing that.”

The Gators had five score in double figures, with sophomore forward Haley Lorenzen adding 12 (10 coming in the second half), senior guard Carlie Needles, junior guard Simone Westbrook, and junior forward Ronni Williams all scoring 10 points each.

Williams hauled in 13 rebounds and dished out five assists including maybe the play of the game. After getting the ball on a rebound near the top of the Vanderbilt key, she sliced through two defenders, dribbled the length of the court and dished at the last second to a crashing Christinaki for two of her 22 points. Westbrook also added five assists on the night.

As a team, Florida shot 50 percent (25-50) from the field, and 7-of-16 (43.8 percent) from three-point range. The Gators took control of the boards in the second half grabbing nine more rebounds than Vanderbilt after half time. Florida won the overall rebound battle 35-30.

The Gators were 22-34 from the free throw line on a big night from the charity stripe as well. The aggressive play of her team had Florida head coach Amanda Butler all smiles after the win.

“I thought it was a fantastic team effort. I loved the way we attacked, and if you look at us shooting 34 free throws, even though we missed more than we would have liked, being super aggressive and putting ourselves in that position is part of when we are our best,” said Butler. “I just loved the way the team played together tonight. Their energy was fantastic. They were so positive with each other. Their huddles were great. When we were communicating, it was exactly how we wanted it to sound and feel. It was reinforcing and in such a manner that we knew we were going to win. They didn’t want to let each other down.”

The Gators have a tough end to the season schedule coming up. Four of the last SEC games on the docket will be on the road. They continue their trek through the conference schedule on Sunday in Athens, Georgia against the Bulldogs (19-7, 7-6 SEC) at 1 p.m. in a live SEC Network telecast from Stegeman Coliseum.

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