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Wednesday March 21, 2012Gators' Loss to Top-Ranked Baylor Ends Their Season but Doesn't Diminish Future Outlook

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

BOWLING GREEN, Ohio – If all someone did was look at the brackets and compare Florida’s NCAA Tournament appearance three years ago with the one that ended here on Tuesday night, it would be easy to assume not much is different.

The Gators squeaked into the tournament, won a first-round game and then got bounced by a superior team.

In 2009 the Gators women’s basketball team advanced to the second round and faced the nation’s No. 1-ranked team. Florida got thumped by 28 points by Maya Moore and her UConn Huskies on their way to a national title.

Many predict that the No. 1-ranked Baylor team that beat the Gators 76-57 on Tuesday is headed toward hoisting a national championship trophy in a couple of weeks in Denver.

That may turn out to be true, but if the Bears win the ultimate prize, they will remember the team they faced in the second round of the Des Moines Regional.

“Those kids were heartbroken after the game,’’ Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “And yet they were very gracious in their handshakes and said go win it all, and they played their hearts out, and that’s what you want your team to face. That's what you want your own team to do is just play hard, and I thought Florida played extremely hard.”

The undefeated Bears (36-0) looked every bit of a potential national champion in Tuesday’s win as all five starters scored in double figures and center Brittney Griner did what she does.

Griner scored 25 points, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked six shots. To add an exclamation point, she threw down her first dunk in more than a year, joining former Tennessee All-American Candace Parker as the only females to dunk in the NCAA Tournament.

Griner’s slam 110 seconds into the second half gave Baylor a 41-28 lead and energized her teammates and brought many in the crowd of 4,097 at the Stroh Center to their feet.

This is where the Gators crumble and lose by 30, right?

It’s true that Baylor extended its lead to 23 points (74-51) with 2:07 left, but the Gators refused to fade into the night in part to its senior class of Jordan Jones, Azania Stewart, Lanita Bartley, Ndidi Madu and Deanna Allen.

Florida scored back-to-back baskets on a layup by Stewart and then one by Jones, her only bucket of the game and continued to leave it all on the court until the final buzzer.

An exhausted Amanda Butler leaned against a wall outside the Gators’ locker room afterward and tried to put in perspective what transpired the previous two hours on the court.

“I’m proud of our game,’’ Butler said. “If somebody says how many points is Baylor better than Florida? I don’t know the answer to that. Going into the game I believed we could win – not because we are more talented, or not because I thought we would hit all our shots – but because I believed in the fight and spirit of this team. I think that’s what you saw.”

The Gators (20-13) held their own against the Bears, who were beating opponents by an average of 27.7 points a game and had only allowed nine teams all season to hang within 20 points on the final scoreboard.

“Florida has great defense,’’ said Baylor’s Destiny Williams, who finished with 11 points and 13 rebounds. “They deliver defensively.”

Florida became the 10th team to keep it within a respectable margin. Of course, history will show a 19-point loss and the end of a season. The Gators get that part.

Still, there was a sense of accomplishment for a team that was one of the final four to make it into the tournament after going 8-8 in SEC play during the regular season.

“We can't be upset with that, you know what I mean,’’ said a teary Stewart, who finished with a team-high 14 points and four rebounds in her final college game. “We played the best team on the best floor and we gave them our best shot, so we walk out of here with our shoulders high, our heads up, and we represented the University of Florida, and that's what I'm so proud of.”

So was Butler. Was the outcome what she wanted? No. Was the performance the best of the season for the Gators? No. Was the effort there to pull the upset if more shots had fallen and perhaps Griner got into foul trouble? Yes.

For that, Butler credited her senior class.

“That fight is the equalizer for us,’’ Butler said. “The way our kids would really go toe to toe with you on every possession. That always gave us a chance. That fighting spirit – they are certainly the five who set that.”

While those five seniors played their final games – and then took pictures together on the plane home in their final journey as teammates – the hope is that what they leave behind can blossom and grow into something much more.

“For next year, they have set the standard for us,’’ sophomore guard Jaterra Bonds said. “We have to go out there and try to pass it next year.”

Butler signed a nationally-ranked recruited class highlighted by guard/forward Sydney Moss of Boone County High in Kentucky. Moss, the daughter of NFL receiver Randy Moss, watched her future team from the stands on Tuesday.

The Gators will also have three players who redshirted this season: point guard Carlie Needles, forward Kayla Lewis and center Viktorija Dimaite. They will join All-SEC player Jennifer George, who led the Gators in scoring and rebounding as a junior.

Before heading to the airport for the flight home late Tuesday night, the 2012 Gators gathered for one final postgame meal at a Dairy Queen with some of the players’ families who had made the trip to northwest Ohio.

They hugged and cried and laughed and reflected.

On paper Butler’s team doesn’t appear that much different than the one that lost convincingly at Connecticut three years ago. The Gators missed March Madness the next two seasons before finally returning this year.

Butler isn’t a psychic, only a basketball coach. But she has good feeling about where the program is headed.

“We were just in a different stage of development for our program [three years ago],’’ Butler said. “I didn’t love that bunch any less or enjoy coaching them any less, but it’s just different. We were just kind of beginning.

“We definitely have a different outlook.”

 

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