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Gators newcomer Antoinette Bannister is ready to get back on the court following a difficult ordeal.

Wednesday October 9, 2013Bannister's Long-Awaited Return to Court is Almost Over

Gators newcomer Antoinette Bannister is ready to get back on the court following a difficult ordeal.

By Jenna Perlman Intern

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- For sophomore women’s basketball player Antoinette Bannister, it took going nearly 500 miles away from her home in Jacksonville to realize the Sunshine State was where she belonged.

A 5-foot-10 guard, Bannister transferred from North Carolina to the University of Florida last spring.

The choice to leave her dream school – Bannister committed to UNC her sophomore year of high school -- was one of the most difficult decisions the 20-year-old has had to make.

In October of her freshman year Bannister’s mother, Lurise Bannister, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which took the life of Bannister’s grandmother.

Although she could tell something was wrong, Bannister didn’t find out the extent of her mother’s illness until she went home for winter break.

“I broke down and said I wasn’t going back to North Carolina. I wanted to be home,” Bannister said. “I didn’t know how the surgery was going to go with my mom. My best bet was to be home. That way, if something had happened, I was close to her.”

Her mother still gets checkups but she is doing better.

So is Bannister.

The last time Bannister played in a game was Dec. 30, 2012 when the Tar Heels played Clemson. Bannister’s choice to transfer from North Carolina meant she had to sit out the rest of the season.

After nine months off the court Bannister is less than a month away from being able to once again play the game she loves.

“Sitting and watching really made me realize how much I miss the game,” Bannister said.  “So I’m really excited to step out on the court for the first time. But I’m nervous at the same time.”

For Bannister, who once had 51 points, 11 rebounds, seven steals and five assists in a high school game, waiting has not been easy.

Time off the court allowed Bannister to grow on a personal level and as a basketball player. Her motivations shifted from playing for herself to playing for those around her, and she’s working to make her game more dynamic.

“It was a learning experience because she never thought she’d have to sit out,” Lurise Bannister said. “It helped her to sit back and develop as they were traveling.”

Until that point in her career, Bannister never had to watch from the bench. She earned her first start at age 13 for her coach and father, Tony Bannister. Her father was her basketball coach at The Potter’s House Christian Academy where she was a prep standout.

Potter’s House Christian Academy is not part of the FHSAA and therefore is not limited to the number of games it could play in a season or how many times it could travel out of state.

“Playing independent was better for us because we got to play in front of a lot of coaches,” Bannister said.

And coaches liked what they saw.

Bannister received her first offer in seventh grade from Louisville. Three years later she received an offer from North Carolina and immediately committed. Bannister didn’t take an official visit anywhere else.

“You never want the best players in the state to leave,” said UF Coach Amanda Butler. “What we dwell on is that she is here now. The present moment is what we’re really excited about.”

And the Gators have reason to be excited.

Bannister brings an athletic ability and energy the Gators need after losing key players in the offseason to transfers.

“She’s a great teammate,” said Jaterra Bonds, senior guard from Gainesville. “The ability she brings is with her deep-range shot. She’s athletic but she is really deceptive in the things she can do. With the offense we are running this year I think she fits in really well.”

Inside the football stadium are plaques with the titles won by various UF teams. The one featuring the UF women’s basketball program is completely blank.

Bannister has a picture of the empty plaque and looks at the picture every day for motivation

The Gators will attempt to win their first SEC title with a roster reduced to nine players after sophomore center Viktorija Dimaite tore her ACL in Saturday’s practice.

“We call ourselves the perfect 10. We are reaching for perfection,” Bannister said. “Ifeel like we have a good chance at winning the SEC title this year – and the years after.”

For Bannister, when the Gators tip off their season against Bethune-Cookman on Nov. 8, it will be more than just her first game in orange and blue. It will be her first opportunity to look into the stands from the court, see her mom and know she is exactly where she should be.

“Just thinking about it kind of makes me want to cry sometimes,” Bannister said.  “I think about what could have been. Maybe she wouldn’t have made it. Being here and being able to see her in the stands will be overwhelming.

“It’ll probably be the greatest feeling ever.”

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