First-game jitters or high expectations? The No. 10 Kentucky Wildcats feel as if they met their early challenge at the Southeastern Conference women's tournament.
Bria Goss hit a layup with 1:22 left and Kentucky rallied from a 13-point deficit in the second half to hold off Florida 71-67 Friday in the quarterfinals. The Wildcats, the SEC's regular-season champions, trailed 20-6 in the first half before coming back for their fourth straight win.
"It says they're a good group of kids to come back from that terrible a start," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said.
Kentucky (25-5) advanced to the semifinals for a third straight year and the fifth in the past seven tournaments. The Wildcats will play LSU Saturday. Mitchell took a dig at all the projections of this tournament being wide open when asked about a possible opponent.
"It will be tough," Mitchell said. "All the questions I've been getting is we're a pretty weak 1 seed evidently."
Florida (19-12) lost for the third time this season to Kentucky, and this time the Gators held Kentucky to a season-low 29.7 percent shooting. The Wildcats made that up with a big edge at the free throw line — 25 of 33 to Florida's 12 of 20. They also protected the ball better and turned Florida's 22 turnovers into a 25-12 scoring edge.
Still, the Wildcats trailed 38-25 early in the second half before fighting back with a 15-4 run. Keyla Snowden's 3 put them ahead 45-44 with 13:04 left, their first lead since 6-4. And it was tight through the finish even with A'dia Mathies scoring 21 of her 24 points in the second half for Kentucky. Snowden had 17 off the bench.
"They certainly wouldn't go away," Florida coach Amanda Butler said. "We had some moments in this game where we looked like the better team, but they always fought back and answered. A'dia is player of the year for a reason, and she definitely showed that. ... If we could've done a little bit better job keeping ourselves out of foul trouble, maybe we would be the first team up here at the press conference."
Jennifer George led Florida with 18 points, Azania Stewart had 15 and Jordan Jones 13.
Florida last led 65-64 on a free throw by Deana Allen with 1:36 left, but she missed the second. The Gators scored only once more on a layup by George with 20.3 seconds left.
The Wildcats looked rusty perhaps from the first-round bye. Mitchell said their routine was different, an early tipoff forcing them to do a walkthrough at their hotel. Florida came in geared up from its opening-round win over Auburn.
"Once we settled down and got used to everything, our defense started to pick up and in the second half, our offense picked up," Mathies said. "So it was just a matter of time."
Kentucky led 6-4 before Jaterra Bonds hit a 3, the first of 16 straight points by the Gators. Allen and Stewart capped the spurt with back-to-back layups, prompting Mitchell to take a timeout. The Gators finished with a big edge inside, 36-22, where they repeatedly drove for layups most of the game.
Mathies hit a 3 with 12:26 left for Kentucky's first points since a pair of free throws by Evans with 16:24 remaining and first field goal since 17:55. That started Kentucky's own 11-0 spurt, with Snowden scoring six of those. Snowden hit a 3 to pull Kentucky within 22-21 with 5:21 to go.
"I don't know why we're having such a hard time making shots, but we just are and there's nothing you can do but hang in there," Mitchell said. "Keyla just stepped in the gap right here and was able to help us hold on. We started out 14 down and nothing going on, it's so difficult to fight out of that hole."
Jones hit a jumper, and Bonds finished a fast break with a layup to pad the lead. Florida led 32-25 at halftime and scored the first six points of the second half in going up 38-25 on a jumper by Ndidi Madu with 18:14 remaining.
"We were just trying to fight the momentum that they were getting back," Stewart said. "You just go on. Like coach says, Mathies is a good player. We knew they were trying to run their offenses through her. We just tried to switch up defenses, tried to throw different things at them."