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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Some challenges seem like walking uphill.

This looks like climbing Mount Everest.

UF (16-11, 5-7 Southeastern Conference) heads into Thompson-Boiling Arena on Thursday night to try and knock off defending national champion No. 3 Tennessee (25-2, 11-1 SEC).

As if to make the task even harder, the Volunteers expect a huge crowd as they will recognize five players during a pregame ceremony as part of Senior Night.

"We're playing the best team in the country on Thursday at their place," UF coach Amanda Butler said. "That's one of the reasons why kids choose to come and play in this conference - to measure yourself against the best - and we have that opportunity."

Fans will flock to the 21,678-seat arena for the chance to see Tennessee redshirt junior Candace Parker in her final home game. Parker, who announced earlier this season that she will forgo her senior year of eligibility, will graduate this semester and will likely be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft on April 9.

The 6-foot-4 two-time All-American forward has been a force not often seen in the women's game. She has dunked seven times and won the 2007 John R. Wooden Player of the Year and 2007 Final Four MVP awards, among countless others.

"She's special - all the attention she's brought to the game," Butler said. "I certainly respect her decision and the career that she's put together in a program that has set the standard for the rest of us for a long, long time.

"I just hope she's not feeling her best on Thursday."

Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in college basketball history, admitted she always worries about how her team will respond on such an emotional night.

"Sometimes they start the game with tears coming down their faces. Even the coach feels that way," Summitt said in a teleconference Wednesday. "Looking back, our players respond well on Senior Night in their play. There have been some exceptions, but for the most part, because they have their families there and it is emotional for them, it reminds them that they need to finish out their home careers in great fashion."

One such "exception" came on Feb. 26, 2006, when the Gators upset the then-No. 5 Volunteers in Knoxville on Senior Night. The 95-93 overtime win was UF's first (and only) win at Thompson-Boiling and one of only two victories in 37 matchups against Tennessee.

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Senior guard Depree Bowden, who played 10 minutes in the game but did not score, planned to share what that moment felt like with her teammates as they prepare for Thursday's game.

"I just remember the clock going off, and we all going crazy in front of those fans," Bowden said. "Gator chomping."

Butler never won at Thompson-Boiling during her tenure as a player (1990-94) or assistant coach

(1995-97) at UF, but she has fond memories of the atmosphere.

"It's a really neat place to play," Butler said. "There's an energy there that's very unique. It's something that I think as a competitor you get fired up about. You can look at it as intimidating… or you could be like, 'Wow, what an opportunity.' Hopefully you rise to the occasion and play your best."

The two teams come into Thursday's matchup with vastly different mindsets. For Tennessee, this game matters little as the team prepares for the SEC and the NCAA Tournaments afterwards. The Volunteers are likely locked into the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament as they would have to win both of their remaining games and LSU would have to lose two for Tennessee to grab the top seed.

"A lot of teams at Senior Night talk about how this means the postseason is approaching," Summitt said. "Certainly our eyes and focus are always on postseason. We are a team that talks about going to Final Fours and cutting down nets. Hopefully, we'll get past that. We better, because we know we have to be ready to play Florida."

The Gators, on the other hand, still have plenty to play for with their SEC seeding far from set in stone and still hold an outside shot at an NCAA bid. A win Thursday would be a big boost to their resume.

With wins in its two remaining games and some help, UF could grab as high as a No. 6 seed in the SECs. Losses could drop the Gators as low as No. 10.

For this reason, Butler continues to keep her team focused on one game at a time.

"It doesn't even make sense to look bigger picture, because that one game could be what puts you down two slots in the standings or maybe up one or two spots," Butler said.

For Bowden, the team's lone senior, it would be pretty special to be part of the first group of Gators to have ever beaten the Volunteers twice.

"I would love to do it again - really love to," Bowden said. "That would be great."

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