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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Luck didn't quite fall Susie Gardner's way.

Each year, the UF women's basketball team plays a home-and-home series with three Southeastern Conference opponents, while playing the other nine only once a year.

Considering Georgia is one such opponent each year, UF assistant coach Gardner, formerly the Arkansas head coach, figured the odds of returning to Fayetteville this season would be slim.

Unfortunately, the SEC schedulers didn't have much compassion, and the Gators head to Arkansas this weekend for a 3 p.m. game on Sunday.

"When I left there, I had no idea where I would land," Gardner said. "When this opportunity came available with (UF coach Amanda) Butler, I don't think that was part of the thought process. Then of course, as we settled in, you start thinking about, well, where do we go?"

It will be a bittersweet return for Gardner, who coached the Razorbacks from 2003 to 2007.

"I've got some great memories in Fayetteville," Gardner said. "I've got some exceptional friends there. To predict or dictate, to determine how I'll respond emotionally - I can't. I'm a very emotional person."

Choosing the assistant coach to scout Arkansas was an easy choice.

Gardner recruited all of the Razorbacks except for freshman walk-on Hailey Nutt and recorded a 64-54 record in Fayetteville.

She found watching game film to be much different than previous scouting experiences.

"It's probably the easiest scout I've done in terms of player personnel," she said. "Instead of writing numbers down, I would write names because I knew who they were."

Gardner has been preparing herself for this weekend since the schedule was released.

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"I have been trying to process it since the beginning of the season, knowing that it was going to be (difficult)," she said. "When you know something's coming, at least for me, I have to prepare, try to prepare as mentally as possible. I think fortunately it is my scout. So I can look at it from that perspective as a preparation scout versus an emotional return type thing."

Arkansas' personnel took a big hit when All-American post player Lauren Ervin tore her anterior cruciate ligament against LSU on Jan. 10.

Ervin averaged 16 points and 11 rebounds per game before the injury ended her season.

It will still be a challenge for the Gators, who are 1-4 on the road this year, but they do have some added motivation - to ease the tension for Gardner in her former home.

"Hopefully we'll pull out the win and it'll be that much better for her," junior forward Marshae Dotson said.

Butler has no doubt that her assistant will be able to focus on the task at hand this weekend.

"She's got a lot of people that are special in her life that are still in Arkansas," she said. "At the same time, it's a business trip and she's a professional and more than anything, she wants to win."

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