STARKVILLE — Amanda Butler didn”t think it would last.
When Fox Sports Net analyst Carol Ross asked Butler at halftime what her University of Florida women”s basketball team would have to do in the second half to maintain its three-point lead against Mississippi State, Butler said the Lady Gators would have to step up their defense.
Butler”s thinking was simple: MSU has been a second-half team and the odds were Alexis Rack and the rest of the Lady Bulldogs weren”t going to shoot as poorly in the second half
Butler was glad she was wrong.
Sharielle Smith scored 13 points, Azania Stewart added 11, and Steffi Sorensen had 12 rebounds to help Florida keep the game ugly in a 55-52 victory before a crowd of 1,892 at Humphrey Coliseum.
“We strive for ugliness,” Butler said. “It has taken us to this point in the season to figure out how we have to play and how we have to try to make other teams play for us to be successful. It has to be a game that is on the floor. It can”t be a game that is up around the rim or be pretty or finesse or highlight reel. It is the stuff where you go, ”Oh, oh, gosh, oh,” but that”s how we”re good. We”re trying our best to impose that style, which is very difficult when you”re going against the type of talent a team like Mississippi State has.”
The 55 points were the fewest Florida (10-8, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) has scored in a SEC victory in the program”s history. That fact fits with how Butler”s desire not to have games be works of beauty, but grind-it-out efforts filled with floor burns, hard work, and frustrating results for the opponent.
MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis can attest to the effectiveness of Florida”s play. The Lady Bulldogs shot 7 of 28 (25 percent, second lowest in a first half this season) in the opening 20 minutes. Save for a brief stretch in the second half when the Lady Bulldogs (12-6, 3-2) regained the lead, they were outhustled, outrebounded (46-35), outworked, and outlasted in part by their inability to execute.
“Some of the things we did to ourselves were pretty ugly,” Fanning-Otis said. “They are a very physical team that talks and works hard together. Their persistence, whether it was ugly or not, and their work ethic, their communication, their expectation, that stayed focused more possessions than we stayed focused.”
The teams combined for 39 turnovers (21 for Florida), and each squad shot 34.5 percent or worse. MSU was 19 of 58 from the field (32.8 percent), including an 8-of-26 showing from 3-point range.
Rack, the team”s leading scorer at 20 points per game, was 5 of 19 (4 of 13 from 3-point range) and finished with a game-high 16 points. Save for two 3-pointers in the final 8.7 seconds that proved to be window dressing and several nifty drive-and-dish assists for layups, she wasn”t a factor.
Junior guard Mary Kathryn Govero, Diamber Johnson, and Armelie Lumanu each had 10 points, but the Lady Bulldogs had four turnovers and missed an easy layup in the final five minutes after the game was tied (at 44) for the final time.
“I thought we came out with energy and had the right mind-set, but we didn”t execute,” Govero said. “We had a lot of unforced turnovers and a lot of missed opportunities right at the rim.”
Govero said she doesn”t know why MSU continues to start games slowly. She said the team is going to have to find a way to change that habit because things could continue to be this difficult in the SEC.
Coming off an 18-point victory at Arkansas on Thursday that followed a 75-48 home loss to No. 4 Tennessee on Jan. 10, Govero said the loss to Florida is more disappointing because MSU had a lead and didn”t put the game away.
“We pretty much gave it to them at the end with unforced turnovers and missed shots,” Govero said.
MSU led by as many as six (38-32) with 11 minutes, 50 seconds remaining in the second half following a layup by Mokango off a pass from Rack, a layup by Rack, and a layup by Lumanu off penetration by Rack.
But those three trips were atypical on an afternoon when MSU didn”t attack against an extended 2-3 zone that stretched out wide to guard shooters. The Gators also trapped in the half-court set and seemed to sap all of the Lady Bulldogs” focus and aggressiveness.
Those are things Butler wants her team to do every game. The points were magnified following a 66-64 loss to No. 4 Tennessee on Thursday in Gainesville, Fla. She was only too happy her prediction about MSU”s play Sunday in the second half was wrong. She was even happier her team had a role in making the Lady Bulldogs play that way.
“All of the film I watched on them — their Auburn game, their Vandy game, their Xavier game — they have been this tremendous second-half team,” Butler said. “Going into the locker room with things being so tight, even if we had been up 20, there was no settling feeling at all. … We anticipated a great second half out of them, and we knew our effort had to exceed theirs.”
With zero fast-break points in the game, Fanning-Otis knows her team has to do a lot of things better. She said MSU”s communication was the element that was lacking the most. She said the Lady Bulldogs have to be in constant communication with each other on the court if they are going to grow.
“We were cautious when we needed to attack and attacking when we needed to be a little more conservative,” Fanning-Otis said. “We just needed to keep it a little simpler and just attack them and get it to the rim. I don”t know if we were concerned about traps or what, but we just didn”t play as smooth a game as we have to have.
“We”re not playing hard enough. Florida kept going and taking it at us. We just didn”t respond to that energy level as many possessions as you have to against anybody in this league.”
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.