Santos leads Gators over MSU in SEC Tourney

Senior Danielle Santos (Marietta, Ga.) scored a career-high 24 points leading the 23rd-ranked University of Florida women's basketball team to a 98-83 victory over Mississippi State in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament at ALLTEL Arena.

Florida, the No. 5 seed, advances to Friday's quarterfinal game against fourth-seeded Kentucky (20-7), with tip-off scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET (6:30 p.m. CT). The game will be televised live in the Gainesville area only on FSN Florida, as well as on FSN South and FSN Southwest in addition to SunSports in the Miami Heat Territory only. Live audio of the game can be heard in Gainesville on WRUF-850AM and on the internet at www.GatorZone.com.

Florida and Kentucky split their regular season meetings, with the Gators winning the 68-61 decision in Lexington on February 5 and the Wildcats earning the 80-65 win in Gainesville on January 12.

The victory snapped a six-game losing streak in the SEC Tournament for the Gators (21-7), who handed the 12-seeded Lady Bulldogs (6-22) their 13th consecutive loss.

"I am very proud of our team," UF head coach Carolyn Peck said. "I thought Mississippi State did a great job on us tonight. They gave us problems with our press, something we take great pride in. I have to compliment my team because they kept their composure when our outside shots weren't falling. They did what they needed to do to get the win. We're thrilled to have the opportunity to go back to the hotel tonight and prepare for Kentucky and not have to pack our bags."

Gator freshman Sha Brooks (Jackson, Tenn.) scored 18 of her 22 points in the second half, reaching the 20-point mark for the third time in the last four games. Brittany Davis (Gainesville) added 18 points with nine rebounds, while Dalila Eshe (Tallahassee) tallied 15 with six boards. Florida also received eight points and seven assists from Sarah Lowe (Wynnewood, Pa.) and six points and six rebounds from Marshae Dotson (Columbus, Ohio).

"Our team is so unselfish," Peck said about the balanced scoring. "Most teams will double when the ball goes inside to Brittany (Davis) or Dalila (Eshe), but they put pressure on Sha (Brooks) and that opened up the inside game. Our team does a very good job of not forcing shots. They play with a strategy."

Florida did not hit a field goal in the final 6:32 of the game, netting their last 17 points from the free throw line, as MSU never relinquished its comeback effort, fouling the Gators on every possession.

Florida finished the game hitting 92.6 percent (25-27) from the free throw, a Gator percentage record in SEC Tournament games. The 98 points also set a team record, passing the 96 points UF scored in its first round win against Arkansas in the 2000 event, also the last time the Gators won a tournament game.

The Gators roared out of the halftime locker room using a smothering full-court press and scoring the first 10 points of the period in the opening two and a half minutes to take a 57-39 lead. But MSU stormed right back with an 11-2 run, cutting UF's lead to nine points, 59-50, with 14:13 remaining.

Danielle Santos hit two free throws, but Miayorka Johnson answered with a bucket for MSU to keep UF's lead in single digits before Sarah Lowe picked up a loose ball and knocked down a trey before Sha Brooks added a short jumper and the Gator lead grew to 14 with 10:12 left. Lauren Roberts followed with a three-point play, as Lowe collected her third personal foul. But Santos continued to hit big shots and canned her first of consecutive three-pointers between two MSU free throws for her 23rd point of the night, tying her career high. After two more MSU free throws, Brooks nailed back-to-back treys to cap a 17-5 run that gave the Gators a 78-59 lead with 7:23 remaining.

MSU never let down, chipping away at the deficit, eventually getting within nine, 87-78, with 1:58 remaining and holding Florida without a field goal for the final 6:32 of the game. The Gators came through from the free throw line during that span, scoring their final 17 points from the charity strip by hitting 17-of-18.

Florida finished the game hitting 92.6 percent (25-27) from the free throw, a Gator percentage record in SEC Tournament games. The 98 points also set a team record, passing the 96 points UF scored in its first round win against Arkansas in the first round of the 2000 event, also the last time the Gators won a tournament game.

The game was even for the first three minutes of the game before MSU went on a 9-2 run to take a 15-8 lead. The Gators responded with a three-pointer from Sarah Lowe that began a 10-2 march for Florida which took an 18-17 lead after Brittany Davis put back an offensive rebound with 12:12 left in the half. The lead then changed hands on the next three possessions before Marshae Dotson's six foot turn-around jumper in the paint ended the trend and put UF up by three, 24-21. After an MSU bucket, Davis converted a three-point play, but the Lady Bulldogs answered with a trey from Robin Porter and closed to within one, 27-26.

The Gators countered with a two straight jumpers from Danielle Santos and Davis followed with another to build the lead to 33-26 with 5:30. MSU, however, refused to fold, and used a 5-0 spree to get within two. Santos responded again with a jumper and Jessica Jackson added a put-back, as the Gators used a 7-0 run to extend their lead to nine points, 40-31, with 2:49 remaining in the period. A Robin Porter three-pointer began a trend of the team's exchanging points, as MSU dropped UF's lead to five points with 26 seconds remaining. But Davis banked in a three-pointer with one second left to send the Gators into the halftime locker room with a 47-39 lead.

Florida shot a steady 48.7 percent (19-39) in the first half, but foul trouble became a concern as Eshe and Lowe each collected two personals and Dotson was whistled for three in the opening 20 minutes.

MSU hit 38.5 percent (15-39) from the floor and held a 23-22 rebounding edge, collecting 13 on the offensive side which they converted into 19 points.


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