Close Florida matchup gives Mitchell first SEC win

Before last night’s Southeastern Conference opener against Florida, women’s basketball coach Matthew Mitchell told his players they had an opportunity to turn their season around.

After 40 minutes of a scrappy game, the Cats did just that with a 60-58 win.

“This team needed a victory really badly,” Mitchell said. “Now they know they can win a close game, and they needed to get that proverbial monkey off their back.”

Freshman guard Amber Smith led the Cats to an early 12-10 lead, scoring eight of the team’s first points. The Gator defense held her to only one point for the rest of the game, but she set the emotion level early for her teammates to build on.

“Amber definitely was the difference in the first half,” Florida head coach Amanda Butler said. “She did things she hasn’t done all year, and she’s going to be a great young point guard.”

Despite a strong effort from the field in the first half, the Cats could not expand their lead to more than eight points. UK’s 40.7 percent from the field in the first half was offset by 12 turnovers. The Cats took a five-point lead into the locker room, 30-25.

When the second half started, the Gators stormed onto the floor with a

7-2 run to tie the game at 32-32 with 16:57 remaining.

The Cats and the Gators traded baskets for the rest of the game. Junior forward Marshae Dotson led Florida with 26 points, while senior guard Samantha Mahoney set the pace for the Cats with with 22 points on 10-of-19 shooting.

“She wanted the ball at the end,” Mitchell said. “She got us going and finished it off for us. We wouldn’t have won tonight without her effort.”

UK maintained its lead throughout the last 14 minutes but could never get more than seven points ahead of Florida.

With 40 seconds left, Florida’s Dotson scored to bring the game within one point. On the next possession, the Cats lost the ball when the shot clock expired.

With 14.5 seconds on the game clock and possession of the ball, Florida dribbled down the court and passed the ball underneath the basket to Dotson. The Cats’ defense swarmed around the forward, and Chelsea Chowning came up with a steal, quickly calling a timeout with 6.4 seconds remaining.

The inbound pass was errant, though, and Florida had another chance. Chowning, who seemed to have the knack for coming up with big plays in the game, drew an offensive foul with 2.0 seconds remaining.

Chowning connected on her first free throw and, per Mitchell’s instruction, intentionally missed the second in hopes that the ball would be tipped and the clock would expire. However, Florida grabbed the rebound and quickly called timeout with 0.7 seconds left, giving the Gators one last chance at leaving Lexington victorious.

After the timeout, Florida inbounded the ball to half-court, but the ball was deflected and time expired, giving Mitchell his first career SEC victory.

“If they would’ve let us win by a half a point, I would’ve taken it,” Mitchell said. “We just needed a win, and we got it.”