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Monday April 15, 2013WNIT Run Something for the Gators to Build on Heading Into Off-season

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The goal for every college basketball team heading into a season is to reach the NCAA Tournament. Period. 


That was certainly the objective for Amanda Butler and her Florida Gators when they first took the floor last October. 


They didn’t quite get there. 


The Gators, however, may just be better for it in the long run. 


The WNIT is a far cry from the glitz and glamour of the NCAA experience. Ultimately, though, that other tournament can be whatever a team makes of it, and the Gators just about exhausted the possibilities in playing five extra games and extending the season -- as a team between the lines, a family outside of them -- for another month. 


“I think they really handled it in a mature way,” Butler said Monday in wrapping up the season that ended with 67-57 loss at Drexel in the WNIT semifinals, the last of five straight road games in the tournament that fell one win shy of the championship game. “With every game, every practice, the next competition opportunity, they discovered more about themselves. They really embraced that we chose to be on the road and really tested our toughness level.” 


The end result was a 22-15 record from a group primarily made up of one senior, two juniors and a bevy of underclassmen that next year will seem like two bevies. 


“For this group of girls, I think [the postseason] was a big step in growth,” said junior point guard Jaterra Bonds, who led the team in scoring at 13.1 points per game. “I’d never been that deep [in a tournament]. It was all do-or-die, win-or-go-home, having that mindset and pressure on you every day.” 


Compare that scenario -- which lasted through wins at Florida International, then at Winthrop, then in a pair of gut-check victories at Charlotte and James Madison, before ending in Philadelphia -- to perhaps receiving an NCAA berth as an 11 or 12 seed and the season ending two hours after it started. 


Again, for this team, which returns 10 players and will add the first McDonald’s All-American in program history in Daytona Beach Atlantic 6-foot-2 forward Ronni Williams, the circumstances and experience that accompanied the WNIT worked better. 


“I opened the team meeting the other day by saying, ‘The best fruit ripens slowly,’ and that’s what we want from this group -- the best fruit,” Butler said. “If we can get their best at the sacrifice of one year of not getting to the NCAA Tournament, playing deep into the WNIT, playing basketball in April -- a first [at UF] -- maybe that sacrifice is worth it. That remains to be seen with how they’ll proceed and push forward.” 


The steps began with the start of offseason conditioning last week. 


Though the Gators will lose All-Southeastern Conference forward Jennifer George, they’ll return Bonds and three other starters, including Freshman All-SEC guard Sydney Moss, who averaged 11.8 points and 6.8 rebounds during the regular season but upped her tournament numbers to 19.8 points and 9.4 boards. 


Moss, the former Kentucky “Miss Basketball,” had the look of a blossoming superstar who figured some things out late in the season. 


“I think my confidence went up a lot,” said Moss, who scored a career-high 28 points at FIU and threw in 27 at JMU. “My teammates confidence in me went up too.” 


Three key reserves, including redshirt freshman and 3-point specialist Carlie Needles, will return, plus two more freshmen, guard Chandler Cooper and 6-4 center Viktorija Dimaite, who redshirted due to injuries. 


Joining Williams on the incoming list will be two transfers in guards Cassie Peoples (by way of Texas) and Antoinette Bannister (North Carolina). 


There’s plenty to be encouraged about. 


“I feel really positive about where this program is headed,” said George, the 1,000-point career scorer and one of the school’s all-time rebounders, mere hours before hoping to hear her named called in the WNBA draft Monday night. “I wish I had another year.” 


Time moves on. 


A year ago, the Gators spoke about building on the second NCAA Tournament berth on Butler’s watch. That one lasted a weekend and including a great win over Ohio State. It ended 48 hours later with a loss to eventual national champion Baylor. 


This season closed much differently and with far less fanfare. 


Yet it may have been the right thing -- right now -- for this group of women. 


“Any team playing in April is good team,” Needles said. “We learned a lot about ourselves and we now we can take what we learned into next season.” 



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