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Gators face tall challenge against top-seeded Bears

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Posted: Tuesday, March 20, 2012 12:20 am

Heading into the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Gators feel like an afterthought.

Even after upsetting No. 8 seed Ohio State in the first round Sunday, ninth-seeded Florida is not expected to beat No. 1 seed Baylor and advance to its first Sweet 16 since 1998.

The Gators (20-12) play the Bears (35-0) tonight at 7:05 on ESPN2.

“Honestly, since I’ve been here, we have been the underdog,” guard Jaterra Bonds said. “I feel like no one respects us, so we have to go out there and take the respect.”

Historically, the odds are not in Florida’s favor against Baylor — No. 1 seeds are 32-2 against No. 9 seeds since the women’s field was established in 1982, and the Bears enter the game as 22.5-point favorites.

However, Azania Stewart takes confidence in the Gators’ under-the-radar victory against a Buckeyes squad that won 25 games this season.

“Everyone was talking about Ohio State and really didn’t give us any credit for what we have done,” Stewart said. “It’s time to start talking about Florida — what [we] have done and what [we] are going to do.”

If the Gators are to upend the Bears, the game plan starts with stopping Brittney Griner, the Big 12 Player of the Year. Griner leads Baylor with 23.1 points, 9.2 rebounds and a nation-leading 5.1 blocks per game this season. She also ranks third nationally with 1.31 points per shot, and she is fifth in the nation with a 61.4 field-goal percentage.

Griner is the best player Florida will face this season, but Stewart is confident in her ability to go toe-to-toe with the Bears’ 6-foot-8 junior center.

“She is very mobile for a big player,” Stewart said. “But, for me, I have played in the [Southeastern Conference], and I’ve played overseas against Olympians who are just as big and just as skilled as her.”

Stewart has spent the last three summers playing basketball in Europe in hopes of earning a spot on the Great Britain National Team for this year’s Olympics. During her time overseas, Stewart said she went up against several big players from different countries, including a 7-footer.

“Well, I played against the Russians. They’re kind of big. … They play in and out from the start, so it’s kind of just like a Brittney Griner,” Stewart said. “The Germans play pretty big and the Lithuanians. So, I’ve had experience that maybe a lot of USA players haven’t had.”

While UF will hone in on Griner much like it did against Ohio State’s Samantha Prahalis on Sunday, Baylor is a better all-around squad.

Nationally, the Bears rank second with a 1.35 assist-to-turnover ratio, third in scoring with 78.9 points per game and fifth in points allowed with 51.2 per contest.

The Gators are 1-7 in games in which they score 60 points or fewer.

“(Baylor) coach (Kim) Mulkey makes it very simple,” coach Amanda Butler said. “She puts her players in position for them to succeed. And they play their roles out very well within the structure [Mulkey] provides them.”

The last time the Gators faced the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, UConn defeated UF for a 28-point victory in 2009.

In order to avoid a similar blowout defeat, Butler says Florida will take whatever “extra fuel” it can get.

“We rarely have gone into matchups against the best teams without people writing in the headlines about our opponents,” Butler said. “Typically we are reading the headlines about our competitors and what our chances are. I think that it is good mental preparation for that for [tonight’s] game.”

Contact Joe Morgan at joemorgan@alligator.org.

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