Junior guard Feyonda Fitzgerald kept shooting.
After missing two of her three shots in the first quarter, Fitzgerald scored 32 points in 37 minutes to lead the Owls to a 97-91 win against the University of Florida at the Liacouras Center Friday night.
“At first, I wasn’t even making those shots, but coach Way [Veney] and coach Cardoza just kept telling me to keep shooting and that they would eventually fall,” Fitzgerald said. “Normally, I see myself not making shots and I get down on myself, and I just stop shooting, but I just did it for my team.”
After falling into a nine-point deficit early in the second quarter, the Owls held onto win against the Gators, from the Southeastern Conference.
“It just felt like it was a great win for us against an SEC school,” coach Tonya Cardoza said. “It was a great learning experience for us. It definitely felt like it was a team effort, and it feels good to get that first one and get the season started with a victory at home with a pretty good crowd. ”
Fitzgerald, sophomore guards Alliya Butts and Tanaya Atkinson and senior guard Erica Covile combined for 83 points.
“[Feyonda] really got us going,” Cardoza said. “I just felt like what got us the lead was attacking and putting the ball on the floor and getting to the free throw line.”
Early in the first quarter, junior forward Safiya Martin picked up two fouls, which forced her to sit out for the remainder of the half.
Cardoza substituted Martin with junior forwards Monasia Bolduc, sophomore guard Donnaizha Fountain, and graduate center Ugo Nwaige. The trio combined for 27 minutes and nine points.
After trailing 38-32 with 5:11 remaining in the second quarter, Fitzgerald contributed seven points on a 18-2 run to close the half and give the Owls a 50-40 lead.
On the defensive side, the Owls focused on Florida sophomore forward Ronni Williams, the Gators’ leading scorer last season, who the Owls held to six points on 3-of-6 shooting.
“[Williams] got into foul trouble and wasn’t really on the court,” Cardoza said. “Her and Erica are like the same player, and they balanced each other out.”
Sophomores Butts and Atkinson both finished with 20 points.
“It’s definitely a way better vibe,” Atkinson said. “Last year, it was like I had to do my job. If I was having a bad game, I would feel bad for my teammates. We all feed off each other’s energy.”
With the Owls leading the Gators 61-48 with 7:08 left in the third quarter, Butts went to the floor with leg cramps. Assisted by two trainers, Butts left the court and then returned four minutes later.
Cardoza replaced Butts with sophomore guard Khadijah Berger, who earned one assist before Butts returned to the game.
“I think I was getting frustrated because they kept going down like they’re cramping, Alliya and [Feyonda],” Cardoza said. “I was looking around like who else could handle the ball.”
With 2:26 remaining in the game, Cardoza was given a technical foul, which gave the Gators an opportunity to narrow the Owls’ lead to as close as 92-89 with less than 90 seconds left in the game. At the 1:36 mark, Martin fouled out, helping the Gators move inside four points late.
“Those last few minutes I felt like we were settling for jump shots and not only settling for them, but getting them blocked and getting them transition buckets,” Cardoza said. “It was just one of those games where everything went wrong during that time.”
Mark McCormick can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MarkJMcCormick.