BOWLING GREEN, Ohio – Azania Stewart was a wide-eyed freshman that night three years ago at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn.
She is now a senior with hopes of extending her career past Florida’s second-round game against No. 1-ranked Baylor on Tuesday night here in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Gators have not faced a No. 1-ranked team since the 87-59 walloping the top-ranked Huskies delivered. Stewart and fellow senior Ndidi Madu are the only current Gators still around from what turned into a forgettable night for the Gators.
“It was our first experience [in the tournament] and they were pretty experienced,’’ Stewart said. “Sha [Brooks] got into foul trouble and that kind of got us down.”
The Gators trailed UConn 26-20 midway through the first half until Brooks’ foul trouble and a 13-0 Huskies run behind the trio of Maya Moore, Renee Montgomery and Tina Charles essentially put the Gators away.
Three years later Stewart senses a different Florida team preparing to face a Baylor program that is 35-0 and led by 6-foot-8 center Brittney Griner, considered one of the most dominant post players the women’s college game has ever seen.
“I think for us in that game [at Connecticut] it was do the best we could and not embarrass ourselves,’’ Stewart said. “Where like [Tuesday] is we know we can play with them and fight and potentially ruin their season.
“Nobody has done it yet, but I don’t think anyone is afraid. We have nothing to lose and sometimes those teams are the ones you have to be scared of.”
The Gators advanced with Sunday’s 75-70 win over Ohio State. Afterward, Florida coach Amanda Butler spent some time watching Baylor’s 81-40 victory over UC Santa Barbara.
While Griner gets the most attention, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey has a talented starting lineup that includes point guard Odyssey Sims, who averaged 20.8 points a game this season against ranked teams, and forward Destiny Williams, who averages 10 points and 9.2 rebounds.
Baylor presents a monumental challenge for the No. 9-seed Gators, but Butler likes the mentality her team has entering the matchup against a team that has won by an average of 27.7 points a game.
“I think if we do what we are supposed to do for the majority of the ballgame and we can make it what we call a possession ballgame going into the homestretch, we can certainly be there,’’ Butler said. “Going into Ohio State there wasn’t a whole lot of talk about Florida except maybe how excited we were to be in the tournament. Do we enjoy being the underdogs? I don’t think our kids focus on it. If someone overlooks us and that’s a little extra fuel for our kids, then great.”
Mulkey watched parts of the Gators’ win over Ohio State Sunday and could see the Gators’ fire.
“I just thought that team played with a sense of urgency,’’ she said Monday. “And what I mean by that is they played extremely hard on both ends of the floor. I thought you could sometimes play excited and undisciplined and have a sense of urgency. They played with a purpose.”
That purpose takes on new meaning Tuesday in a showdown with the country’s No. 1-ranked team.
GATORS vs. NO. 1
Date Opponent H/A Result
1-28-89 Auburn H L 87-58
3-2-89 Auburn N L 72-61
1-24-93 Vanderbilt H L 69-63
2-21-93 Tennessee H L 88-75
12-18-93 Tennessee A L 84-69
1-10-98 Tennessee A L 99-60
1-21-99 Tennessee H L 77-64
2-27-05 LSU A L 76-52
2-24-09 Connecticut A L 87-59