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Sunday March 18, 2012Gators Take Road Less Traveled in Knocking Out Buckeyes, Face Baylor Next

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

BOWLING GREEN, Ohio – They didn’t melt when the pressure reached its boiling point. They didn’t wilt when the heat soared to its zenith. They didn’t crumble as Ohio State took advantage of three consecutive turnovers to close to within two points and less than a minute to play.

They could have. The signs clearly pointed in that direction. But instead of going down the road often traveled, the Gators women’s basketball team took a detour on Sunday afternoon here in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

They did it by first looking Coach Amanda Butler in the eye when she yelled a message to them in the huddle with 54.1 seconds to play.

“Look at me. We’re going to win this y’all. We’ve got this.”

Sophomore guard Jaterra Bonds believed her.

“I think that brought a calming effect over everyone, that she believed in us and now we believed in each other,’’ Bonds said. “She told us, ‘We got this,’ and we went out there and got it done.”

By getting it done with a 70-65 win over the Buckeyes, the Gators won their first March Madness game since a first-round win over Temple in 2009, their last visit to the tournament.

The key sequence came following a 30-second timeout Butler called to get her team to calm down, or in her own words, “not freak out.”

Butler designed a play that fed the ball into forward Jennifer George, who was not having her best day against Buckeyes 6-foot-5 center Ashley Adams. George had made only 5 of 16 shots, with several swatted away by Adams, who finished with seven blocks.

Most of George’s moves in the paint had been toward the middle. She kept that in mind when Azania Stewart tossed the ball to her. George swung to the left, but instead of making her move in the middle of the lane, she swept across the lane and went to her left hand.

Good. Suddenly, Florida led 67-63 with 45 seconds remaining after going more than three minutes without a point.

“She was getting blocked a lot, but I had confidence she was going to get that shot the last time,’’ Bonds said.

“I knew I went middle every time on her, so I think she was anticipating me going middle, so I wanted to fake going middle and go with my left hand,’’ said George, who finished with a team-high 16 points and six rebounds.

After George’s layup, the Gators were never seriously in danger again – in part to Stewart’s rebound on a missed free throw by Jordan Jones with 16 seconds left – to end Ohio State’s season in front of a loud Buckeye-rooting crowd of 4,195 at Stroh Arena.

Finally, the Gators didn’t get lost with the game on the line. Finally, they could breathe. Florida entered having lost 10 of 12 games this season decided by six points or less.

They had Arkansas in trouble on the road and lost in double overtime. They were up late at Vanderbilt and the Commodores won thanks to a last-second shot. They were running all over Kentucky at the SEC Tournament but could only wonder “what if” as the Wildcats moved on and they returned home.

Not this time. It was their time to escape a close call and not be the ones exiting the building with long faces.

“Knowing that you lose and you go home,” Jones said. “I think that was a big part of it, especially having five seniors. We were constantly reminding ourselves that this was not going to be our last game. All those close losses during the season make this worth it.”

Florida’s win capped a memorable week. The Gators (20-12) had to wait until the final moments of Monday night’s NCAA Selection Show to even know if they were in the tournament.

So many close losses made it a very close call as Florida was one of the final four teams in.

Meanwhile, much of the buzz leading up to the game focused on Ohio State’s displeasure at being a No. 8 seed. The Buckeyes (25-7) felt they deserved better and head coach Joe Foster let everyone know all week.

The Gators hoped to use the Buckeyes’ displeasure to their advantage as they prepared. Much of that preparation was spent watching game film. But Butler and her staff scheduled a different kind of movie night on Saturday.

The team watched “Undefeated,” an uplifting film about an underprivileged and underfunded high school football team in Memphis that won Best Documentary Oscar at last month’s Academy Awards.

“It was an inspiring movie,’’ George said. “I think everybody had tears in their eyes at the end. It just shows we can be that team.”

The Gators returned to their hotel following Saturday’s win and quickly began to turn their attention to No. 1-ranked Baylor (35-0). The Bears thumped UC Santa Barbara in the other first-round game in Bowling Green and will face the Gators on Tuesday night for a berth in the Sweet 16.

Bears 6-foot-8 center Brittney Griner presents a challenge unlike any other the Gators have faced.

But after Sunday’s win, Butler mentioned words like fight, resiliency and hustle to describe the Gators.

“The defining qualities of this team,’’ she said.

She saw them as they broke the huddle that led to George’s key basket.

“The looks back were very confident. At that moment I did have a little sigh of relief,’’ Butler said. “The confidence in their eyes was really undeniable.”

At that moment, anything seemed possible.


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