STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Each time Dayton needed a clutch basket or a stout stop, Florida found a way down the stretch to deny the Flyers.
The Gators have no starters taller than 6-foot, yet they were the ones that came up big in crunch time.
“When things started to go wrong, we made mistakes,” Dayton coach Jim Jabir said. “We don’t have that intestinal fortitude to fight through it.”
Cassie Peoples scored 21 points and all five Florida starters scored in double figures, leading the Gators past Dayton 83-69 Sunday in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
The 11th-seeded Gators (20-12) will play Penn State on Tuesday night in the Stanford Regional.
In a first round full of lopsided victories by the heavy favorites, the Gators became the 29th 11th-seeded team to win a tournament game. Jaterra Bonds and Ronni Williams each had 15 points for Florida.
“That’s not what we came here for, to just beat Dayton,” Bonds said. “We came to get that Round 2 win. We want to get to the Sweet 16.”
Andrea Hoover led the Flyers (23-8) with 22 points and Celeste Edwards scored 15 points. Hoover and Edwards helped the Flyers storm to a double-digit lead in the second before Florida started to rally.
The Gators shot 51 percent in the second half to wipe out the deficit and stun Dayton.
“We have to be a tougher team,” Hoover said. “We can’t keep making the same mistakes over and over or we won’t get far.”
The Flyers appeared to put the sting of losing to Fordham in the A-10 tournament championship game behind in a hurry. Hoover and Saicha Allen-Grant hit early 3s in the second half helped push Dayton’s lead to 11.
The Gators stormed back and wiped it out with 8:44 left in the half. Peoples scored a layup, Florida forced on a turnover, and Kayla Lewis went inside for a bucket for a 57-56 lead.
Carlie Needles first 3 of the game made it 60-56. The Flyers kept creeping within a bucket of tying the game, only to get pushed back with a score on the other end. Needles, a 5-foot-6 guard who averaged only six points a game this season, swished another 3 for a 67-60 lead that finally gave the Gators the breathing room they needed.
“Carlie hitting the 3s really gave us that confidence to seal the game off,” Peoples said. “It really put a dagger in them when Carlie was hitting those 3s. We’re all just grateful she still had the confidence to take them after (a slow start).”
Dayton’s Celeste Edwards missed a layup that could have made it a three-point game, Florida grabbed the rebound and Needles completed the fastbreak layup for a 69-63 lead.
Hoover, who led Dayton this season in points, assists and 3-point shooting, didn’t have enough left for one more rally. She made 4 of 8 3-pointers and chipped in four rebounds.
Hoover hit three 3-pointers and scored 15 points to give Dayton a 32-29 halftime lead. Amber Deane scored 10 of her 15 points in the half and the Flyers shot 52 percent from the floor to build the lead.
The Flyers missed 14 of 20 3-point attempts.
“We went away with what we were doing so well, driving to the basket and getting to the free-throw line,” Hoover said. “We kind of settled for jump shots, we were kind of taking bad shots and they got some runouts on the offensive end.”
Even with an at-large bid, the Flyers still earned the highest seed in program history. That wasn’t enough to satisfy a program reaching for more.
“We’ve had trouble all year playing consistently tough in stretches and it bit us really hard today,” Jabir said.
Florida was back in the tournament for the first time since 2012. The Gators managed a fifth-place finish in the rugged SEC even with one of the thinnest rosters of any tournament team. The Gators have played just eight players in all but two games this season, seven against LSU on Jan. 12 and nine against Florida State and Nov. 21. The played only eight on Sunday – and didn’t need any more.
Lewis had 11 points and 11 rebounds. Led by Lewis, Florida outrebounded Dayton 41-26.
“Just look at the rebounding difference, look at our size versus them,” Jabir said. “That tells you everything you want to know.”
Peoples had so much fun leading Florida to an upset tournament win, she wants to keep the good times rolling.
“We’re all focused for game two,” she said, “but for games three, four and five. However long we keep going.”
That sounds like a plan for the Gators.