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Monday March 12, 2012Gators Ready for Waiting Game to be Over

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – In a hallway outside the women’s gym at the UF basketball practice facility, the photo hangs on the wall as a reminder of that historic day.

“It was one of my most special moments as a Gator,’’ Florida head coach Amanda Butler said. “I’ll never forget it.”

In the photo are Butler and a pair of teammates reacting to the Gators’ first NCAA Tournament berth in school history. You can see the bracket -- Florida vs. Bowling Green -- on the small TV in then-Gators coach Carol Ross’ condo where the team watched the selection show.

That was 1993. Nineteen years later the Gators will gather in Butler’s home on Monday evening to watch the NCAA Selection Show. They hope to see “Florida” pop up on the TV screen and perhaps have another photo to add to that wall.

The Gators (19-12) have not been invited to March Madness since 2009, Butler’s second season after returning to UF and taking over a program she once represented on the court as a feisty point guard.

According to most projections, the Gators are a safe bet to make the tournament. ESPN women’s bracketologist Charlie Creme has the Gators a No. 8 seed in the Kingston Region (East) facing No. 9 seed Virginia, coincidentally the same first-round matchup as in the men’s tournament. The winner would face the UConn-Navy winner in Bridgeport, Conn.

The Gators are optimistic about their chances but know they can’t celebrate until their named is called.

“Certainly there is a little bit of anxiety in not knowing,’’ Butler said. “I think we’re in. I just can’t imagine that we’re not. Our team’s total body of work and in particular what we did in conference play, I think is significant.”

Senior guard Jordan Jones agrees. Ten of the Gators’ 12 losses came by six points or less and Florida made a late push for a tournament bid by defeating Georgia at home in the home finale and then by nearly beating No. 1 seed Kentucky in the SEC Tournament in Nashville 10 days ago.

Florida finished 8-8 in a tough SEC that could have as many as eight teams in the field.

“I feel like we’ve earned it,’’ Jones said. “I have a good feeling. If you are a casual basketball fan and you see 19-12, you might not think, ‘Oh, they deserve to be in.’ But if you look at what we’ve done and how we’ve played, I feel like we should be in there.

“We’ve been counting down until Monday. I just want to be in. Anything can happen from there.”

The Gators entered the SEC Tournament with the same anything-can-happen mentality. After beating Auburn in the first round, Florida raced to a big lead against the Wildcats. A victory would have essentially erased any doubt about the program’s 13th NCAA Tournament berth in school history.

Instead, the Gators were forced to endure a 10-day wait for their fate between their final game and Monday’s selection show following the four-point loss to the Wildcats.

Jones went home to Georgia for a few days on spring break to spend time with her 2-year-old niece. Butler, a 21-year-old college kid in that photo on the wall, spent time recruiting and celebrated her 40th birthday. Senior Azania Stewart, a freshman when the Gators last made the tournament three years ago, went to Orlando to shop and hang out with a former teammate.

They all spent their off time differently before returning to practice on Thursday. But they share the same belief about earning a tournament berth: they deserve a berth and it’s would be a boost to the program.

“I think it’s very important. It’s excitement and a big tradition of making the tournament,’’ Stewart said. “Our school as a whole is a winning school. And so I think just being proud of that and falling into that tradition … I think it would have been hard for me this year if we didn’t make the tournament and went to the NIT and finishing up my career like that.

“I’ve had that taste and that feel of success.”

Two factors on Florida’s side are its RPI and strength of schedule. Florida’s RPI is 41 (as of March 5) and its SOS is ranked 13th in the country. If the Gators do make the tournament and are sent to Connecticut, it will be a similar path as three years ago.

The Gators played in Storrs, Conn., beating Temple in the first round before losing to eventual national champion Connecticut by 28 points on the Huskies’ home floor.

Stewart said she thinks this year’s Florida team is deeper and has better chemistry than the team she played on her freshman year.

“It was a great experience,’’ she said. “I think we actually have a chance to go deeper than we did our freshman year.”

First, they must wait a little bit longer.

“There’s just not much question that we deserve to be in there,’’ Butler said. “But obviously we’re not the ones who are making the decision, so we’ve just got to be ready to go whatever we get.

“It would be really special.”

 

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