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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

It was the best news the UF women's basketball players had heard in three years, and they were wishing for something better.

They were sulking for a reason. They should've been upset. The Gators thought they deserved a higher seed, and they were right.

After going 23-7 overall and 9-5 in the Southeastern Conference - the toughest league in the nation - you'd think the Gators deserved better than a No. 8 seed and a potential second-round tango with undefeated Connecticut.

This is where this program is now: They can complain after actually making the NCAA Tournament. Last year, they would've been sprinting onto University Avenue had they even been selected into the field of 64, and two years ago they were one of the laughingstocks of Division I-A.

"It speaks a lot to how far this program has come in a very short amount of time," UF coach Amanda Butler said.

In Tuesday's second-round game, the Gators will be beaten down, thumped and any other word you can think of against the Huskies, who have defeated teams by an average of 31 points. UF won't have a problem with Temple, its first-round opponent, but it will be sad to see the college careers of Marshae Doston and Sha Brooks end in a likely debacle against Connecticut. Even though that's not what this team deserves, who cares? The fact that they are even in this situation is rather absurd.

I watched and covered nearly every game this team played two years ago when it stumbled to a 9-22 record. Program respectability seemed about five years away. That's when Butler came in and instilled competitiveness in practice and signed players who actually made their practices competitive.

"During spring break, all we've been doing is beating each other up in practice," Brooks said.

Everyone else has taken notice of UF's rise - at least those not on the tournament selection committee.

The Gators are no longer a team opponents giggle about when they look at their schedule. Now, it's more like, "Oh, boy, do you think we really practiced our man-to-man defense enough? Let's go take a few more jumpers, too."

These past 30 games have shown UF is one of the fastest-rising programs in the country. Recruits are noticing, and the top women's basketball players in Florida no longer think FSU is the closest competitive program in their state.

One year in the NCAA Tournament does not make a program, this is true. I highly doubt anyone, however, would say Butler is building a program that can't make the tournament every year. Finally, UF has the makings of a consistent program. There's not the sporadic recruiting that happened under Carolyn Peck, but you can tell there's actually a plan now. The plan is working and could continue to work for some time now. It won't be a plan that's shown full-scale next week unless a ridiculous upset happens, but there's still little room for disappointment.

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So when Butler and her underclassmen are depressed after getting throttled against the Huskies, they need to remember just one thing: This is just the start.

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