A momentary sense of relief washed over the Gators on Monday night.
With the tournament brackets released on ESPN, 11-seed Florida is set to take on No. 6 seed Dayton in University Park on Sunday afternoon.
“As soon as we heard it, the whole room erupted,” senior Jaterra Bonds said. “We were all yelling. It was a sense of joy and happiness for all the hard work we put in.
“It’s been a battle, especially with all we’ve been through, and our limited numbers. To be in the top five in the best conference in the league and to make it back to the Big Dance for my second time is just a joyful feeling.”
Now with a set opponent, the Gators are getting back to business.
The NCAA Tournament offers a fresh start for every team, deeming the past season’s wins and losses meaningless.
“This time, the upperclassmen and the seniors step up and show and teach the younger kids what it takes and what it means, and how other teams are going to be pumped,” Bonds said.
“It’s basically a brand new season. Whatever you did in your conference tournament and non-conference really doesn’t matter right now. It’s a whole new mindset that teams bring in because it’s do or die, literally.”
Bonds and fellow senior Lily Svete are the only two members of the team who played during Florida’s tournament run in 2012.
Both will be leaned heavily upon by the rest of the team simply because of their prior experience.
“It gives you another level of experience because you know how it’s going to feel, the expectations,” Bonds said. “There’s going to be millions of people watching on TV, so it’s just another chance to show the world how great our conference is and how good our team is.”
Having been exposed to that type of environment is important. Luckily for Florida, it plays in the Southeastern Conference, the toughest conference in the country.
Two No. 1 seeds in the tournament are from the SEC — Tennessee and South Carolina.
“I think the SEC teams have the biggest advantage from top to bottom,” redshirt junior Kayla Lewis said.
“It was almost even, anybody could have beat anybody. All eight of the teams going in are battle tested, have losses and have wins against each other.
“I think we’ll all be confident going in, especially if we don’t have to play each other again.”
In general, tournament games tend to be closer matchups than regular-season games simply because the stakes are so high.
Bonds and her fellow teammates are expecting an intense atmosphere come Sunday.
“You’re not going to see games where people get blown out,” she said. “You may not even see games with people winning by 10. There’s going to be games people will win by three, or even one point.
“It’s so much emotion. You don’t know what each team is carrying on their shoulders, the motivation that they have. You can’t take anything for granted, not one possession, not anything.”
Although film study has just begun, coach Amanda Butler has some experience against Dayton from her coaching days at Charlotte.
“I had a chance to coach against Jim Jabir’s teams then, and he does an amazing job — really, really good coach,” Butler said. “He’s a guy who recruits players away from people and is always in the top of the league and a postseason contender.”
With the season on the line, Butler will be doing everything in her power to ensure her Gators beat the Flyers on Sunday.
“It’s going to be a tough matchup,” she said. “You have to hit the fast-forward button in terms of your preparation from a coach’s standpoint. Even though you have some time to prepare, this time of year more than anytime, what you do well has got to be more important than what your opponent does.”
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Jaterra Bonds looks to pass the ball during Florida’s 81-76 loss against Missouri on Feb. 20 in the O’Connell Center. UF will start the NCAA Tournament against Dayton on Sunday.