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Sunday, January 16, 2022
<p>Cassie Peoples drives down the court during Florida’s 81-76 loss to Missouri on Feb. 20 in the O’Connell Center.</p>

Cassie Peoples drives down the court during Florida’s 81-76 loss to Missouri on Feb. 20 in the O’Connell Center.

After a quick two-game stretch in as many days at this year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament, the Gators got some much needed time off heading into the NCAA Tournament.

Florida was named a No. 11 seed in the tournament Monday and will play sixth-seeded Dayton on Sunday in University Park, Pa.

“Getting some rest is important for our team,” coach Amanda Butler said.

“We’ve got some people that have been playing really hard minutes down the stretch. Just getting them off their feet and letting them have an extra couple days is crucial for us.

“We’ll have an opportunity to get some skill-work in, do some things we don’t typically have a chance to do during conference play.”

This season, the SEC featured four ranked teams at season’s end: No. 3 Tennessee, No. 8 South Carolina, No. 10 Kentucky and No. 15 Texas A&M. Tennessee and South Carolina are both top seeds. Florida went 2-4 against these teams.

But playing in the nation’s toughest conference should prove to be beneficial for the Gators, who are set to embark on their first journey to the NCAA Tournament since 2011-2012.

“I think it’s a huge advantage,” Butler said. “We have to make it important. I think it’s a huge advantage to know, basically, what we’ve experienced since January certainly can’t be any tougher. I think it’s a great confidence builder for our team knowing that we’ve been in a lot of battles already that seem NCAA tournament-like.”

The last time Florida was invited to the dance, it beat then-No. 16 Ohio State 70-65 in the first round.

During the second round, eventual NCAA champion Baylor creamed Florida 76-57.

Players from that team who still remain include redshirt junior Kayla Lewis, senior Jaterra Bonds and redshirt senior Lily Svete.

Those players will take an increased role as guides attempting to navigate their team through the uncharted waters of the NCAA Tournament, unfamiliar ground for most of the Gators.

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“All year long, we’ve relied on our leaders, our upperclassmen Jaterra, Lily and Kayla, in particular, who have got more basketball experience underneath their belt, whether it’s SEC experience or postseason experience,” Butler said.

“I would expect those guys to continue to do what they’ve done, be strong voices, model the type of work and attitude that it’s going to take for us to continue to be successful and extend our season.”

Before the season, Florida was projected to finish 10th in the SEC, according to the preseason coaches’ poll.

The Gators ended up fifth in the conference.

“It was a slap in the face to our upperclassmen, in particular,” Butler said.

An X-factor has also emerged for Florida in redshirt sophomore Cassie Peoples.

Peoples has shown a stoic demeanor and a consistent style of play.

Although her offensive numbers weren’t glowing this season, the numbers she posted in the SEC Tournament may be a sign of better things to come.

“Cassie’s a great player,” Butler said.

“I think she’s one of the best point guards in the country, especially young point guards. She wants to win, she’s a competitor and she has great confidence in her game.

“Her teammates have great confidence in her, so there was never a point where she stops shooting or anyone wanted her to stop shooting.”

In the SEC Tournament, she shot a combined 10 of 20 from the field including a 7-for-11 clip from beyond the arc.

In the most recent loss to Kentucky, Peoples scored a game-high 18 points, along with Lewis, while tallying three assists and three rebounds.

“I think she’s playing her best basketball right now, as evidenced by that performance against Kentucky,” Butler said, “and that’s what we need.”

Follow Gordon Streisand on Twitter @Gordon_Streisand

Cassie Peoples drives down the court during Florida’s 81-76 loss to Missouri on Feb. 20 in the O’Connell Center.

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