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Florida overcomes low expectations despite tourney loss

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Posted: Thursday, March 27, 2014 12:36 am

Like a game in the NCAA Tournament, this season was “do-or-die” for coach Amanda Butler.

Florida’s women’s basketball program was in a state of flux after a tumultuous offseason.

Senior defensive leader and top scorer Jennifer George graduated. Freshman standout Sydney Moss and Chandler Cooper transferred to different schools, and Vicky McIntyre left the program.

At the time, the Gators were one giant question mark.

Incoming freshman Ronni Williams and transfers Antoinette Bannister and Cassie Peoples, from UNC and Texas, respectively, rounded the team off at 10 players entering the 2013-14 season.

The Gators were picked to finish 10th in the Southeastern Conference a year after going 6-10 and finishing eighth in conference play.

Florida coined a “Perfect 10” motto, but the Gators were down to nine before they even stepped on the court.

Another season-ending ACL injury to center Viktorija Dimaite shaved the Gators’ roster down to nine active players for their season debut, further sinking already low expectations.

The Gators muscled their way to a 5-3 record through its first month of play. A 10th-place finish in the SEC definitely seemed reasonable, especially with Bannister sustaining a hand injury that left Florida with only eight players.

But December treated UF well.

Florida went undefeated to close out 2013 and opened up 2014 with an impressive nine-game stretch that featured an overtime thriller against Georgetown, two consecutive 100-point games, a 31-point performance from embattled sophomore Christin Mercer and an upset victory over then-No. 6 Kentucky in Lexington, Ky.

Florida ended its streak against then-No. 12 LSU in the wake of Mercer’s suspension after she was arrested for conspiracy to commit a robbery, leaving its already depleted roster with only seven players.

Fortunately, Bannister came back shortly after Mercer’s arrest, if only to serve the purpose of having another warm body in a Gators uniform.

Then came the unexpected addition of Pamela Begic, one of UF’s soccer players, to increase the roster back to nine relatively healthy players.

Although she never saw the floor, Begic’s height and prior basketball experience were what led Butler to put the midfielder on the roster — not to mention that active players were at a premium entering the home stretch of conference play.

A few alternating wins and losses later, the Gators found themselves fifth in the SEC at season’s end after another upset victory over Kentucky — this time in Gainesville — and a signature victory in Vanderbilt.

After earning a bye to start the SEC Tournament, Florida went 1-1, beating Mississippi State for the second time this season and losing to Kentucky after winning the first two matchups.

And after slogging through injuries and controversy seemingly all season, the Gators were redeemed when they received an invitation to the NCAA Tournament, for the first time since 2012 as an 11-seed.

Naturally, Florida was the underdog in its first game against six-seed Dayton, but it still overcame statistics and won the game.

The season ended two days later against host Penn State, but it ended later than everyone thought it would.

Seniors Jaterra Bonds and Lily Svete were crutches that kept the Gators from falling. Although they had their fair share of missteps, Svete and Bonds kept the team afloat, playing instrumental roles in many Florida victories — Bonds driving to the lane and Svete shooting her signature three-pointer.

“Coming from all the things that came up during our season, we had great leadership,” redshirt junior Kayla Lewis said. “JT and Lily set the tone in practice during conditioning. They were always the first to do anything. They were ready to do whatever needed to be done for our program. We just followed behind them.

“When things looked bleak and dark, we never wavered because of our leadership.”

Follow Gordon Streisand on Twitter @gordonstreisand

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