Earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament played out like much of the Gators’ season — it was close.
Florida (19-12), a No. 9 seed, was one of the last four teams added into The Big Dance along with Texas, Michigan and Kansas State, according to NCAA women’s committee chairman Greg Christopher. They will play in the Des Moines region against eighth-seeded Ohio State (25-6) in Bowling Green, Ohio, on Sunday at 12:15 p.m. on ESPN2.
The bid is the Gators’ first since 2009 and the second in five years under coach Amanda Butler.
“I don’t care — last four in, first four in,” redshirt senior guard Jordan Jones said. “We’re in and that’s all that matters.”
Eight Southeastern Conference teams made the NCAA Tournament for just the third time ever, and this year marks the first time it’s happened since 2002.
As one of the final teams to make the cut, UF clinching a bid to the NCAA Tournament was not as assured as the Gators believed down the stretch.
Following a 79-45 win against Mississippi State on Feb. 23, Butler said that there was “no question” that UF deserved an at-large bid.
After a road loss to Tennessee and a quarterfinal exit from the SEC Tournament against Kentucky on March 2, assistant coach Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick said she would be “shocked” if Florida did not receive an at-large bid.
Butler said much of the same Sunday.
“I think we’re in; I just can’t imagine that we’re not,” Butler said. “The total body of work, in particular what we did in conference play, I think is significant.”
The Gators are the lowest-seeded SEC team in the NCAA Tournament thanks to an eighth-place finish in league play, but the closeness of their games worked in their favor.
In nine losses to conference foes this season, UF lost by an average of just 5.6 points per game.
Also helping matters was Florida’s two-game sweep of fifth-seeded LSU and a late-season upset of No. 4 seed Georgia.
“If you’re a casual basketball fan and you see 19-12, you might not think, ‘Oh, they deserve to be in,’” Jones said Sunday. “But if you look at what we’ve done and how we’ve played, then I feel like we should be in there.”
Going into this weekend, only senior center Azania Stewart and redshirt senior forward Ndidi Madu have NCAA Tournament experience. Stewart and Madu played for Florida when it lost to No. 1 seed and eventual national champion Connecticut in the second round in 2009.
While the 2008-09 team stands as the best of Butler’s tenure based on results, Stewart believes that this year’s squad is better.
“We actually have a chance to go deeper than we did my freshman year,” Stewart said. “We had a great team my freshman year, but I don’t think our chemistry, our fight and our overall performance [was] as good.”
With five seniors on the roster, Jones likes the Gators’ chances of making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
“That’s the biggest stage in basketball,” Jones said. “Everyone’s going to be watching it and you have a chance to show how hard you’ve worked all season and how you want go out and make a name for yourself.”
Contact Joe Morgan at [email protected].