UK Hoops defeat Florida 71-67 to advance in SEC Tournament

UK Hoops celebrated a SEC regular-season championship minutes before tipoff of its second-round SEC tournament game in a trophy presentation on the court of Bridgestone Arena.  Seven minutes after tipoff, the Cats were reeling from a 16-0 Florida run that had put them 14 points behind.

The Cats tout consecutive top-ten recruiting classes and reigning SEC Freshman of the Year Bria Goss, but it was experienced leadership that extended their SEC Tournament run.

The upper-classman trio of  A’dia Mathis, Amber Smith and Keyla Snowden led UK Hoops in overcoming a 14-point first-half deficit to defeat the Florida Gators 71-67 in the second round of the SEC Tournament Friday at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.

After securing a small 6-4 lead early in the game, the Cats surrendered a 16-0 Florida run.  That was the longest run an opponent had put together against the Cats this season.

“I’m not sure how level my head was staying when we were down 14. For them to battle back from all of that… 20-6, looked like it might get 36-6,” Mitchell said.  “Didn’t look like it was going real good for us.”

The Cats answered with a 12-0 run of their own, fueled by a pair of 3 point-plays be Senior Keyla Snowden (one behind the arc, and one the old-fashioned way)

“Keyla came off the bench with great energy. We started out 14 down, just nothing going on. It’s so difficult to fight out of that hole,” said Mitchell.  “But when you get the three-point ball going, it can kind of lift everybody’s spirits, lets you play harder on the defensive end.”

Snowden ended the half with nine points and three steals to keep the Cats within distance.

“Keyla’s performance was spectacular. Obviously we could not have won without that kind of performance,” Mitchell said.  “So real happy and proud of her on that.”

Junior guard A’dia Mathis, however, struggled in the first half, connecting on just 1-for-7 shots from the field.

The Cats went in to the locker room down 32-25.  The shot 8-for-36 from the field for 22.2 percent and were out-rebounded by the Gators by 12 (32-20)

Mathies returned to the form that earned her SEC Player of the Year in the second half.

Mathies played the entire second half, scoring 21 points.  She connected on 6-for-12 from the field, 2-for-3 behind the arc and 7-for-10 from the free-throw line in the half.

“A’dia is a Player of the Year for a reason,” Florida head coach Amanda Butler said. “She definitely showed that.”

UK head coach Matthew Mitchell also made a change at point guard three minutes into the second half.

With staring sophomore point guard Maegan Conwright struggling (four points on 2-for-7 shooting, one assist, three turnovers), Mitchell replaced her with senior Amber Smith.

“We just were real hesitant at that position today,” Mitchell said. “We needed somebody to come off with some energy.”

The Cats promptly went on a 10-2 run, closing the Florida gap to 40-38 with 14:27 remaining in the game.  It essentially became a possession-by-possession game after that, with neither team claiming more than a four point lead the remainder of the way.

Mitchell said that Smith brought more energy to the team, and he left her in for the remainder of the game.

“I was really proud she was able to rise to the occasion because we needed it badly. We were just sort of lifeless out there at the point position,” Mitchell said.  “We just told her she needed to go in and make some plays. I thought she played probably her best game of the year.”

 The Cats won the rebounding battle in the second-half (22-12) and had more second-chance points than the Gators for the game (13-4).

The Cats capitalized on the Gators free-throw shooting woes.  The Cats hit 25-33 from the line, compared to 12-for-20 for the Gators.

Bria Goss struggled offensively Friday, shooting 1-for-9 from the field and scoring just six points.  Goss gathered seven rebounds, and drew a key charge late in the game to help secure the win.

“Bria hustles every day in practice, every game. Even though she wasn’t having the best night, made a mistake here or there, she’s going to try to give it her best and her all,” Mathies said. “We kept encouraging her, kept motivating her. She came back and played some big plays for us.”

With the loss, the Gators (19-12, 8-8 SEC) now seemingly sit firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble.  An early season Gator win over then-ranked No. 21/19 Florida State, has lost some luster as the Seminoles are now have a 14-17 record.  The Gators resume now includes three close losses to the Cats.

The Cats will now face the winner of Friday night’s game between LSU (20-9, 10-6 SEC) and Arkansas (22-7, 10-6 SEC).

The Cats played both teams once during the regular season, defeating Arkansas 84-72 in Lexington and losing to LSU  51-61 in Baton Rouge, La.

“I guess we’ll have our hands full tomorrow. We’ll get the players ready to go. Whoever it is, clearly LSU or Arkansas, both outstanding teams. We had very tough games with both,” Mitchell said. “So I’m sure it will be a tough game. But our players have to have some confidence headed into tomorrow overcoming a tremendous deficit to win this game. So I’m real proud of them. They need to be pumped up and ready to go tomorrow, and I think they will be.”