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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Susie Gardner knows the pain Amanda Butler is going through.

Their grandmothers lived in the same retirement center, and Gardner had met the woman Butler affectionately called MeeMaw.

Butler, the UF women's basketball head coach, traveled to Mt. Juliet, Tenn., late Friday night to see her ill grandmother and missed the team's game at Temple on Saturday.

Viola Draper, in her late 90s, passed away Saturday night.

"I know the only time Amanda, tough Coach Butler, gets soft is when she talks about MeeMaw," said Gardner, one of Butler's assistant coaches. "I know personally what she feels."

She said assistant to the head coach Janna Magette has talked on the phone with Butler numerous times, including right after Saturday's game during the walk from the locker room to the bus.

Gardner has exchanged text messages with Butler and spoke to her on the phone Saturday night.

"She was, as always with me, joking and making fun and very strong," Gardner said. "At the same time, some of her text messages I could feel the pain, the hurt."

While Gardner and Butler may be different, they share at least one trait.

"If you did a personality test, we would probably be at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of us having anything in common," Gardner said. " But at the same time, the one thing we do have in common is our love for family."

In the meantime, the coaching staff continues without Butler to prepare the Gators for their Southeastern Conference opener Thursday at Kentucky.

Gardner, head coach at Arkansas the past four seasons, always looks forward to conference play.

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"As soon as Temple ended, I started getting excited about Kentucky and SEC and starting this great conference season," she said.

Gardner has seen a change in the players over the non-conference slate. She was proud of the fact that UF never let Temple back into the game Saturday.

The Gators opened the game with a 13-1 run and held an 11-point lead at halftime. The Owls did not come within single digits during the final 19:28 of the game.

"That's a maturation on our players' parts," she said. "They have matured throughout the course of the season. We are playing our best basketball at the most important time of the season, going into SEC play."

Expectations will be much higher than last season, when the Gators entered conference play 6-9 and struggled to a 2-12 league record.

Both this year's and last year's teams were 4-4 after eight games. Last year's squad dropped their next two games, while this year's team hasn't lost since, winning seven straight games.

That doesn't mean the coaches are satisfied with an 11-4 record.

"That is exceptional, but at the same time, as any coach would, we could really be 13-2," Gardner said.

When Butler makes her expected return Wednesday, Gardner doesn't expect her to show much pain.

"She'll work through these next couple of days and she'll rejoin the team and everything will be the same," Gardner said. "Because if there's someone who can hide their emotions, it's Coach Butler for sure."

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