Inside the Florida basketball complex, a pair of small trees sit inconspicuously in a corner.

Placed in the first room players enter on the way to practice, the trees live in the shadow of the room’s trophy cases, which are adorned with awards commemorating the men’s team’s success.

"We walk into the complex every day. We see all these trophies, right? Not one of them is ours," UF women’s basketball sophomore Haley Lorenzen said at the beginning of the season. "So for me, (the goal this season is) winning an SEC title and hopefully an NCAA championship."

But after two thoroughly devastating losses in both the Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments, the women’s team once again has no hardware to put on display.

Instead, the team’s only presence in the room is the two trees, each one decorated with small, white labels hung like Christmas ornaments. On them, players, coaches and staff members wrote down why they were thankful for the team heading into the season.

At one time, the messages represented hope and optimism for the new season ahead. Now, they sit as a nearly invisible, almost forgotten reminder of what could have been.

"The opportunity to be a part of something special" is what Lorenzen wrote on her label. And for a while, that’s exactly what this season was shaping up to be: something special.

• • •

Following a 13-17 season that concluded with a hasty exit from the SEC Tournament after a 22-point loss to Auburn, the expectations outside the program were not very hopeful. At SEC Media Day, UF was picked to finish 12th in the SEC.

But inside the program, hopes and expectations were high.

And while a season-opening loss at Temple put a damper on things at the very beginning, it was the season’s second game that set the tone for the rest of the campaign.

The Gators were tasked with facing then-No. 6 Florida State in Florida’s home opener. The Seminoles had beaten the Gators by 26 points the last time the two squads met.

But three new players — a freshman and two junior college transfers — turned out to be the spark Florida needed. The 82-72 victory propelled Florida on a 12-game winning streak that carried it through non-conference play.

"It’s a different year, it’s a different team," coach Amanda Butler said after the upset win. "It’s a different spirit, a different energy awareness on this team."

"2nd chances/support" is what redshirt senior Cassie Peoples wrote on her label on the tree.

Peoples transferred to UF from Texas after her freshman year and was suspended twice this season for undisclosed violations of team rules, so she was understandably thankful for the second chances and support. But her personal choices aside, the team also had a new chance to prove itself.

After going 5-11 in SEC play the year before and the quick exit in the 2015 SEC Tournament, the Gators went into SEC play as an afterthought. But that didn’t stop them from competing like they were frontrunners.

While the very beginning, much like the beginning of non-conference play, didn’t start off as they hoped — a 76-70 home loss to then-No. 8 Mississippi State — the Gators played well enough in that game to build momentum for the games ahead.

Florida finished 10-6 in the SEC, including a win at then-No. 12 Tennessee as well as back-to-back wins over then-No. 12 Kentucky and then-No. 12 Texas A&M.

Following a 56-49 win over Auburn in the regular-season finale, UF solidified its 4-seed status in the SEC Tournament. Once again, they'd meet Kentucky.

Kentucky thrashed Florida in a beatdown that got incrementally worse as the game wore on, ultimately winning by 23 points. And just like that, one second chance had gone to waste.

But at no time did Peoples' thankfulness for second chances resonate more than after that loss.

Because unlike after the SEC Tournament loss the year prior, Florida had something to look forward to other than next season this time: a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament.

A No. 5 seed, Florida was pitted against Albany in its first game.

Having played in four consecutive NCAA Tournaments coming in, Albany wouldn’t be a pushover. However, as a fifth-seeded team out of the SEC, Florida was favored.

But just as President Barack Obama predicted in his women’s NCAA Tournament bracket, Florida was upset in a different, more deflating fashion than against Kentucky.

"We just weren’t us in the last 10 minutes of that game," Butler said. "In the fourth quarter, we just didn’t play Florida basketball. We were a little more hesitant, didn’t make good defensive decisions."

That fourth quarter saw Florida surrender what had been a 16-point lead in the final minutes of the game. And with that collapse, UF squandered its second opportunity in as many games.

"I am thankful that I have a team that is caring but also willing to hold me accountable" is what January Miller wrote on her label.

And holding the team accountable is exactly what Butler did following the two losses.

"Definitely some disappointment in not capitalizing on our opportunities at the end," Butler said. But while the once-promising season turned to severe disappointment over the span of just two games, Butler believes that the program is still headed in the right direction.

"Sometimes you have to reach certain levels and fail to know how to succeed," Butler said, citing something UF volleyball coach Mary Wise told her. "Going forward doesn’t always mean wins. Going forward is sometimes learning lessons through losses and adversity."

While Florida will go into next season with nothing tangible to show for the 2015-16 campaign, it did gain two pieces that will help it on the same journey next season.

First, there’s experience. Albany was battle-tested and knew the atmosphere of the NCAA Tournament. Now UF knows, too.

Second, they gained confidence. In a season where little was expected, the Gators showed that they could hang with the SEC’s best despite their late-season collapse.

For now, though, the two trees will remain in the trophy room as the only evidence of Florida even having a women’s basketball team aside from the sign above the door.

And while their relevance is somewhat diminished with the way the season ended, the messages of hope for the future and faith in each other are, in a way, timeless.

"Ability to believe in me," reads junior Simone Westbrook’s label, "and give me an opportunity."

And next season, that’s exactly what the Gators will have once again: an opportunity. Only this time, they’ll be able to start off in a much better place than they had to the year prior.

"Wins and losses are certainly the easiest things to talk about," Butler said of her team’s season. "But I think the strides our program made in terms of reinforcing and fortifying culturally what we’re trying to do ... I think that’s success."

Contact Ethan Bauer at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ebaueri

 

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language. Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated. Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything. Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person. Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts. Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.