PHILADELPHIA, Pa. – Florida won its first four games in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT) on the road and was aiming to become the first team in the history of the event to reach the title game without playing a home game, but was unable to overcome Drexel’s solid shooting and rebounding effort in a 67-57 decision in the semifinals on Wednesday night at the John A. Daskalakis Athletic Center in Philadelphia.
The Dragons (27-10), who hit 8-of-18 three-pointers and held a 33-26 rebounding edge, shot 49 percent (24-49) overall from the floor and limited the Gators (22-15) to just seven offensive rebounds and forced them into a 4-of-20 three-point shooting performance.
“They did a great job of rebounding and that was the difference,” said UF head coach Amanda Butler, who has guided the Gators to an 11-6 postseason record. “We got outrebounded by seven and we only had seven offensive boards and didn’t give ourselves any second chances. Defensively, we didn’t get it off the rim and up the floor like we needed to. Once they got the lead they did a great job of really slowing down the pace and milking the shot clock under five seconds regularly. That was not flukish, that’s what they do and we did a really poor job of defending that.”
Freshman Sydney Moss (Union, Ky.) scored a team-high 20 points with a game-high 10 rebounds to post her fifth double-double of the year, while junior Jaterra Bonds (Gainesville, Fla.) added 14 points and five steals.
"She was unstoppable in the first half; I think she got a little tired in the second half,” said Butler of Moss, a 2013 Southeastern Conference All-Freshman Team honoree who scored 16 of her points in the first half. “It was not any secret that we were short-handed tonight and Kayla (Lewis) is still banged up from our last game so we had to play Sydney at the four a little bit and that was difficult because that’s not where she’s played all year long and it was hard to run offenses with her at that spot. Again, you just have to give Drexel credit for the positions they kept putting us in all night.”
Moss averaged 19.1 points and 8.0 rebounds during UF’s five-game WNIT run.
The Gators, who have earned a postseason berth in all six seasons under Butler, graduate just one player from the 2012-13 squad. Jennifer George is the team’s lone senior and is on pace to earn her bachelor’s degree in Recreation, Event Management following an internship.
She scored 10 points in her collegiate finale.
George, who played in a program-record 135 games, concludes her collegiate career with 1,257 points, which ranks No. 17 in program history, along with 915 rebounds, the seventh most by a Gator. The 6-foot forward also blocked 191 shots to rank fourth all-time, along with 171 steals that rank No. 13, attempted 418 free throws to rank No. 10 and played in 3,151 minutes that rank No. 10 in UF history.
George totaled 62 double-figure scoring games, 32 double-figure rebounding games and 28 double-doubles.
She was voted 2013 All-SEC Second Team by the league’s coaches, who also named her to their 2013 All-SEC Defensive Team and the 2012 All-SEC First Team. George is one of only seven Gators who recorded at least 900 rebounds and scored 1,000 career points and is one of only 13 players in program history who has played 3,000-plus minutes.
“Hopefully, we’ve grown up a lot and matured a lot and discovered a lot about ourselves,” Butler shared. “We’ve talked a lot about how Sydney has played in postseason. It’s a tough way for Jennifer’s career to end. On the same note, I think this is something we’ll really build off of and springboard into next season.”
Drexel senior Hollie Mershon scored a game-high 28 points on 10-of-18 shooting that included a pair of three-pointers and a 6-of-7 effort from the free throw line. She also dished 10 assists with five rebounds and two steals in 39 minutes.
“She’s so confident and so aggressive, well-rounded where she can shoot the three and hit off the dribble,” Butler said of Mershon. “I give her a lot of credit and I don’t mean this in any way to discredit her because she played a fantastic ballgame as did all of her teammates, they all stepped up and made plays at big moments; just how often we allowed her to get all the way to the rim, we did really a poor, poor job off of the ball.
“You have to give a lot of credit to Drexel and the way they played, their level or readiness, their level of execution and their ability to get themselves to the free throw line,” Butler continued.
Four of UF’s five WNIT games were decided by 10 points or less, including the last three games which featured a combined 29 lead changes and 17 tied scores. Overall, 21 of the Gator’s program-record 37 games were decided by 10 points or less.
Florida ends its season having reached the semifinals of a national postseason tournament for the second time in program history.
Both teams struggled in the opening three minutes of the second half, but Drexel struck first on the scoreboard with a three-pointer from Mershon, who gave the Dragons a 37-28 lead.
Bonds and George followed with back-to-back buckets with 15:08 to go and the Gators were with five points, 37-32, the closest they had been since the 6:23 mark of the first half.
Taylor Wootton, who finished with 16 points, then scored six straight points over the next 1:54 and Drexel was back up by 11 points with 43-32.
Bonds hit a driving layup with 11:42 remaining and after a Drexel bucket, freshman January Miller (Orlando, Fla.) banked in a three-pointer, just UF’s second three-pointer of the game, and the Gators were within eight points, 45-37, with 11:02 to play.
The Dragons, however, responded with an 8-0 run and took a commanding 53-37 lead with 7:29 remaining.
Florida tried to answer with a 6-0 spurt with four points from Bonds, but Fiona Flanagan halted the run with Drexel’s eighth three-pointer, as she finished the night with 11 points thanks to a trio of treys.
Freshman Carlie Needles (Highlands Ranch, Col.) then hit one for Florida with 4:27 to go and the Gators were back within 10 points, 56-46, but Mershon hit a bucket as the shot clock expired and Drexel added another field goal to take a 60-46 lead with 1:55 remaining.
Bonds hit another bucket and Needles another from deep, as the Gators were within nine points.
After one free throw from Drexel, Bonds converted a driving layup and Florida closed to 61-53 with one minute left, but the Dragons stepped up at the free throw line, where the knocked down all four attempts in the final 53 seconds to secure the win.
Drexel used a 14-2 run midway through the first half and jumped out to an 18-8 lead with 12:20 remaining.
Moss halted the spurt with a bucket and freshman Christin Mercer (Douglasville, Ga.) added an inside jumper for back-to-back buckets.
After one Dragon free throw, George added an inside jumper and the Gators were within five points, 19-14 with 9:30 on the clock.
After the teams traded scores, Drexel’s Meghan Creighton drilled consecutive three-pointers in a 52-second span and the Dragons took the 27-16 advantage.
Moss then scored the next five points, the last three on a three-point play with 4:24 left in the first half. Similar to the last time the Gators trimmed a double-figure deficit to five or six points, Drexel answered with a trey, this one from Mershon, who followed with a bucket in the paint and the Dragons reassumed an 11-point lead, 32-21.
Moss and Mershon exchanged scores, before Bonds hit a layup and Moss canned Florida’s first three-pointer of the half, as she closed the period’s scoring with the Gators down 34-28.
Moss scored 16 points, while George added eight during the first 20 minutes.
Both teams connected on 13 shots in the first half, but the difference came from beyond the arc, where the Dragons hit 5-of-12 and the Gators just 1-of-9.