UNIVERSITY PARK — After Florida tried to shoot over Dayton’s 2-3 zone to get back into the game, Gators point guard Cassie Peoples started to slice her way to the basket possession after possession.
She finished a layup with her left hand. She banked in a floater on Florida’s next possession. She dribbled her way through the Flyers defense for a third straight time and drew a foul.
The 5-foot-6 point guard cracked the zone.
Her teammates followed her lead, setting screens to help her attack the gaps and preparing for passes when she made her move. In eight possessions, starting with Peoples’ left-handed layup, Florida turned a nine-point deficit into its first lead of the second half. The point guard scored 10 points to go with one assist during the run that propelled No. 11 seeded Florida past sixth-seeded Dayton 83-69 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at the Bryce Jordan Center on Sunday.
“Cassie led that charge,” Florida coach Amanda Butler said. “It’s just like the light bulb clicked on all of the sudden, and she just said, ‘This is what I’m gonna do, and I’m gonna do it every single time.’ So I was really proud of her to be that resilient and have that type of confidence at that point in the ball game because it was certainly the turning point.
“Everything else just kind of fell in place from there.”
The Gators (20-12) never relinquished the lead, thanks to three 3-pointers by guard Carlie Needles in the final eight minutes. Peoples paced five Florida players in double figures with 21 points. Jaterra Bonds and Ronni Williams each scored 15, and Kayla Lewis and Needles each added 11.
Until Peoples started to break the zone, Dayton (23-8) was in control and in position to advance.
The Flyers jumped ahead by nine points less than two minutes into the second half, and they led by as many as 12 in the first five minutes.
The Dayton offense was clicking, powered by a mix of drives and open 3-pointers. And its 2-3 zone, a change in strategy by Flyers coach Jim Jabir, had Florida shooting 15 percent from beyond the arc before the Gators’ decisive run.
“Our plan was to play man,” Jabir said. “And then once I realized that they’re playing four guards — and they’re a lot quicker than they look on film — I didn’t feel comfortable that we could play man against them.
“I thought it would have been worse if we tried playing man, and I thought for a while the zone looked good.”
Florida missed consecutive 3-pointers, one by Needles and one by Bonds, trailing by eight points with more than 12 minutes to play. The Gators were 2-for-13 from beyond the arc and missed all five attempts in the second half to that point.
The Flyers pushed their lead to nine on a free throw by Cassie Sant.
Then Peoples got going. And the zone — and Dayton’s lead — crumbled.
The Gators guard scored six straight points and cut the deficit to five. She found Lewis on a pick-and-roll that led to a pair of free throws to bring Florida within three. She hit a pull-up and finished another layup to trim Dayton’s lead to one.
Peoples drove baseline, drew two defenders and hit Lewis for a wide-open layup to push the Gators ahead 57-56 with 8:52 to play.
“I think Cassie just took advantage of what was there and it just kind of snowballed,” Butler said. “Once it worked once or twice, I think her confidence grew. Her teammates’ confidence in her grew.”
From there, as Butler said, everything fell into place for the Gators.
Florida locked down Dayton defensively. And the 3-pointers finally started to fall.
After the Gators missed 12 straight from beyond the arc, Needles connected on consecutive 3-point attempts to expand Florida’s lead to seven. She just beat the shot-clock buzzer on her final 3 less than three minutes later to put the game out of reach.
The Gators led by eight with 2:45 to play.
“Carlie hitting those 3s really gave us the momentum and really gave us that confidence to seal the game off,” Peoples said. “And it really put a dagger in them.”
The 3-pointers by Needles clinched the win. But the drives by Peoples made it possible.
Both parts make up what Bonds described as Florida’s offensive motto.
“We love to get to the rim first,” Bonds said with a grin. “But we like 3s.”
Notes: Florida closed the game on a 38-15 run. … The Gators went 19-for-37 from the field (51.4 percent) in the second half. … Florida is 6-0 when five players score in double figures this season. … Kayla Lewis grabbed 11 rebounds to go with her 11 points for Florida. … Andrea Hoover led Dayton with 22 points. … Celeste Edwards (15), Amber Deane (14) and Ally Malott (12) each scored in double figures for the Flyers. … Dayton shot 51.9 percent from the field in the first half to take a 32-29 halftime lead.