1999-2000 Florida Lady Gator Basketball Season Outlook
Playing one of the toughest schedules in program history after graduating three veteran seniors, the 1998-99 Florida women's basketball team proved that its foundation was indeed solid and it can compete year-in and year-out on the national level. Sure, there were learning bumps and bruises along the way during the season. But when the scrapes healed, Florida found itself competing in the NCAA Tournament for the seventh consecutive year - one of just 11 teams to compete in the "Big Dance" every year since 1993.
The season came to a grinding halt with a frustrating 87-84 overtime loss to Arizona in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. However, the Lady Gators finished the year with a 19-14 record and proved to everyone that they didn't necessarily need a single superstar to generate wins.
The 1999-2000 Lady Gators return 11 of their 12 letterwinners from last season, bringing together their individual talents, strengths and experiences to comprise this year's Florida squad.
Among the returners: a scoring phenom, a speedy floor general, a feisty defender, an aggressive post player, a record-breaking three-point shooter, a natural shot blocker.
These are just a few of the many faces that comprise the 1999-00 squad. This is Lady Gator Basketball!
Shooting guard/forward Talatha Bingham, who contributed 8.4 points and 3.7 rebounds per game, was the lone senior on the 1998-99 team. She departed as the Lady Gator's all-time leader in three-point field goals (246) and played in a program-tying 128 games during her career, starting 115. Bingham's experience and maturity will be tough to replace.
However, the 1999-00 Florida team features four seniors. The Lady Gators also return four starters, including their top four scorers and top four rebounders.
"Having more than one senior should make a difference in the team's maturity and focus," head coach Carol Ross said. "They understand that this is their last hurrah. They want to leave their mark and make this a special season."
A Summer Setback
The Lady Gators incurred one serious setback during the summer of 1999, when sophomore starting point guard Brandi McCain (5-3, guard) tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee on July 5th while representing USA Basketball at the World University Games. McCain underwent reconstructive surgery on July 23rd and is expected to return to the court sometime during the season.
"You hate it for her, but Brandi is a fierce competitor," Ross said. "She has proven that adversity only makes her tougher. She will respond and be back better than ever."
Seniors Tonya Washington (6-0, forward) and Tiffany Travis (5-10, forward) led Florida in scoring last season, averaging 16.7 ppg and 14.5 ppg, respectively, while Kelly Freeman (6-0, forward) and Erin O'Neil (6-3, center) combined for 31 starting assignments last year.
"I think they the seniors are extremely focused," Ross said. "They had great springs and summers. They carried quite a bit of the load last year. As you mature and get older you're expected to do more and they understand that. All four of our seniors understand that defense will help them achieve the goals they have set for the team and for themselves."
Washington, who also led UF with 8.3 rebounds per game in 1999, earned All-Southeastern Conference Second Team honors as a junior. She has a terrific one-on-one game and drives aggressively through the paint. Her outside game proves just as tough, as Washington logged the highest 3-point field goal percentage (40.7%) by a junior in UF history.
"Tonya creates match-up problems with many teams because she's so quick as a forward," Ross said.
Travis, who snared 4.2 rebounds per game last year, spent the first half of last season getting comfortable with her knee, which she rehabilitated during the summer of 1998 after tearing her ACL. Travis brings a complete offensive package to the Lady Gator lineup but needs to focus on defense to secure a well-rounded game.
"Tiffany started finding her groove at the very end of last season. It took her most of the year to regain her confidence," Ross said. "Her offense is ahead of her defense. She is capable of making giant strides in both areas."
Freeman, who started 22 games last year and averaged 2.4 points, was elected co-captain of the 1999-00 team by her teammates. Her role as a leader will be an invaluable contribution.
"Kelly keeps things positive for this team," Ross said. "She's much stronger physically now than she has ever been. She's prepared for her final season. We expect leadership, enthusiasm, and strong role play from Kelly."
O'Neil provides strength and agility to the Lady Gators inside game. She showed increased maturity in her game throughout her junior season, contributing 3.3 points and 3.2 rebounds, and will be an important part of UF's post play again this year.
"Erin has developed into a strong rebounder and takes pride on the defensive end," Ross said. "She is a good high-low passer."
Tombi Bell (5-5, point guard), Tamara Stocks (6-3, center), Misty Knight (6-1, forward) and Candace Cunningham (6-1, forward) comprise the junior class.
Bell's role on the 1999-00 team was significant even before McCain's summer knee injury. Until McCain can return to the court, Bell, who averaged 3.4 points and 1.8 assists, will direct the Lady Gator offense. She worked her way into the starting lineup last year until suffering a foot injury during the shoot-around prior to the Colorado State game early in the season.
"Tombi brings very good energy to the court. She can electrify her teammates," Ross said. "She brings enthusiasm. Every player has their own gift and we need what Tombi brings to this team. She gives a great effort on the defensive end and is good in transition."
Stocks was UF's second-leading rebounder (6.0 rpg) and fourth-leading scorer (11.2 ppg) last year, while leading the team with 32 blocks and a 53.0-field goal percentage. Stocks anchors the Lady Gator's inside game but will need help from her teammates to win the battles in the paint.
"The minutes Tamara played last year were about as important as anybody's on this team," Ross said. "She's still learning and she's still growing. Tamara will be a terrific player for us. We need a nucleus of post players to step up and help her."
Injuries have stood in the way of Knight's development, but a healthy summer may have been exactly what she needs to make an impact. She brings versatility to the Lady Gator lineup, featuring three-point range and won't shy away from contact in the paint.
"Misty works hard in practice, but she needs to prepare herself to be more of a factor," Ross said. "This could be Misty's year to make her move into our system."
Cunningham brings depth to the forward position. She is a great motivator with a good feel for the game.
"Candace is a nurturer," Ross said. "She has a specific role on this team and is a very important part of what we're doing."
McCain made the biggest impact of the newcomers last year; en route to becoming the first Lady Gator freshman in history to earn First Team All-SEC honors. Naomi Mobley (6-2, forward) and Monique Cardenas (6-0, guard) provided glimpses of their talents for what could be in store this season. Walk-on Lindsey DeLoach (5-10, guard) will return for a second season.
McCain earned the respect of her teammates after contributing 13.0 points and an SEC-best 7.5 assists per game last season, as they elected her team co-captain of this year's team. She possesses excellent court leadership, versatility and quickness.
"Brandi made a splash last year and she's going to get even better," Ross said. "She started every game as a freshman point guard and received on-the-job training. She leads by example and she does a very good job of that. She learned a lot about tempo during the year and running specific plays with different lineups on the floor. By the end of the year, she recognized so many things on her own while running the offense."
Mobley slowly made the transition into the college game and showed she has the potential to take over a game. She exploded during three specific games last year, torching George Washington for 17 points and eight rebounds, Central Florida for 21 points and 10 rebounds and Tennessee for 13 points and 14 rebounds.
"Naomi's whole success depends on her effort and her conditioning. It's within her control," Ross said. "She just has maturing to do. If she can give us a consistent effort, our inside game will be a force."
Cardenas also used her rookie season to adjust to the rigors of college basketball. She is a solid, instinctive player who appeared in 27 games last year. Cardenas is an aggressive rebounder who possesses good height on the perimeter.
"Monique just wasn't physically strong enough to stay in a game long enough to get into a groove to play but she's worked hard this summer," Ross said. "Rebounding is her strength."
DeLoach survived walk-on tryouts last October and appeared in nine games during the season, totaling 18 minutes of action. Her positive attitude and work ethic play an important role for the Lady Gators.
"Lindsey works hard, gives a good effort and comes prepared for practice every single day," Ross said. "She understands her role on this team. Those are qualities that are going to help make our team great."
Florida welcomes four new players to the court this season. Shona Rucker (5-8, guard) joins the Lady Gators after a successful two-year stint at Kilgore Junior College in Texas. Nikki Tibbs (5-8, guard) set national three-point records starring for Bulter High School in Alabama. Jameelah Trimble (6-5, center) was an imposing force at American Senior (Fla.) High School.
Rucker earned NJCAA All-America Honorable Mention honors during her sophomore year at Kilgore. During her sophomore year, she averaged 12.4 points per game, 4.8 rebounds pg, 5.3 assists pg and 3.5 steals pg, leading the conference in assists and ranking second in steals. She graduated from Wolfson (Jacksonville, Fla.) High School in 1997.
"Shona is very intense and very defensive minded," Ross said. "She can shoot the three-pointer, but she's more of a slasher and a penetrator. Shona loves defense. That's what we noticed in her even back in high school. She's just intense."
Tibbs gives the Lady Gators a bona fide, long range, net sizzling, three-point shooting threat. As a high school senior she drilled 154 treys -- 18 more three-pointers than the entire Florida squad tallied last season, when the Lady Gators hit a program-record 136. Her three-point season total set the national girls' prep record, as did her career total of 406.
"Like most freshmen, the biggest transition has Nikki to make in the college game is the physical aspect," Ross said. "Nikki can come off screens and shoot like a maniac. She moves well without the ball."
At 6-5, Trimble will be one of the tallest players ever to wear a Lady Gator uniform. As a senior, she averaged 15.9 points and 13.7 rebounds per game, earning All-Dade County Class 6A-5A First Team honors selected by The Miami Herald. The 218 total blocks Trimble recorded her senior year established a new school record.
"Jameelah is a natural shot blocker. She likes to block shots," Ross said. "If she can continue to block and alter shots here, she will be a presence in the paint."
Florida's schedule will again be among the toughest in the country. It features a total of 19 games versus teams that competed in the postseason last year. Fourteen of those match-ups are against NCAA Tournament teams, including a Nov. 26 trip to West Lafayette, Ind., to face defending NCAA champion Purdue. Five additional games are versus WNIT teams, including defending WNIT champion Arkansas.
This year's exhibition schedule will be as exciting as ever, with the U.S. National Team visiting the O'Connell Center on Nov. 17.
"We're very excited about the caliber of opponents on this year's schedule," UF head coach Carol Ross said. "We'll start it off with a bang against the U.S. National Team and hopefully use that game as a learning experience and a springboard into a great season."
Four of the Lady Gator's first six games are versus other teams from the Sunshine State. Florida opens its 26th season of varsity competition on Friday, Nov. 19 against Florida Atlantic, a game which will be played as part of a double-header with the UF men's team on the eve of the Florida-Florida State football game. The Lady Gators then pack their bags and travel to Central Florida on Nov. 28, Miami on Dec. 1 and Florida State on Dec. 7 to complete their Sunshine Swing.
Florida plays host to the State Farm Classic for the 10th consecutive year. The Lady Gators face Western Kentucky in the first round on Dec. 28, with Boston College battling Maine in the other game. The championship and consolation games will be played the following evening.
The Lady Gators welcome the new century playing six consecutive games against teams that participated in the 1999 NCAA Tournament. In fact, the remainder of the 2000 regular season schedule features only three games against teams that did NOT reach the postseason last year: two games versus South Carolina (Jan. 23 & 30) and one against Vanderbilt (Feb. 6).
On Jan. 3rd, UF hosts Wisconsin-Green Bay, followed by its Southeastern Conference opener on Jan. 6th against Mississippi State. Florida's February stretch includes nine games, eight of which are against '99 postseason teams.
"Ten of the 12 SEC schools earned a postseason bid last year and as difficult as it may be to believe, the league will be even better this season," Ross said. "The SEC lost some outstanding players to graduation last year, but every team returns the bulk of its roster. This could be one of the toughest SEC seasons I can think of, and I've been a part of this league for 20 years."
One Final Look
Ross, who enters her 10th season on the Lady Gator sidelines, has a strong, experienced nucleus of 16 players to prepare for the 1999-00 season. Florida will be aiming for an eighth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament, while consistently battling national powers within the Southeastern Conference.
The Lady Gators had an early tune-up for the season, spending 12 days traveling through France, Switzerland and Belgium where they played several games against top club teams.
"This was a good opportunity to begin developing our chemistry," Ross said of the preseason trip. "Trips like these only bring your players and coaches closer together."
This year when Ross looks down her bench, she will see many different faces with unique talents. With those come several different looks to place on the hardwood, which all blend to form the 1999-00 Lady Gator basketball squad.