For a year that began with so much promise, the 2015-16 season ended on a sour note for the Florida Gators women’s basketball team.
After being ranked for the first time since 2009, then No. 5-seed UF crashed in the 2016 NCAA Tournament, bowing out to No. 12-seed Albany in the opening round of play.
“We did have a great year last year, but it came to a bankrupt end,” coach Amanda Butler said. “It ended way sooner than we had hoped, and it wasn’t for any physical reasons.
“It wasn’t for lack of talent or lack of skill. It was just some areas where we had some mental breakdowns.”
This season, the Gators will be looking to rediscover their form, a level of play that yielded UF's best regular season record since 2008-09.
However, they’ll attempt it without some familiar faces.
Five seniors — four of whom were guards — graduated, thinning the team’s depth.
Senior guard Simone Westbrook, the squad’s defensive leader, tore her right ACL in August, jeopardizing her season.
With these questions and more surrounding Florida, Butler has resorted to unconventional practice techniques in an effort to gain an edge over the competition.
“Yeah, the boxing,” she said, “I love talking about that.”
Taking her team from the hardwood to the canvas, coach Butler has partnered with Gladden Boxing Club’s Lee “Coach Milk” Gladden Jr. for cross-training practices. She watched as her players learned the art of boxing, improving their reaction time and footwork in the process.
However, the benefits weren’t solely physical.
“If you look at it, everyone is doing what we’re doing on the basketball court,” senior forward Ronni Williams said. “Everyone’s working harder because they think everyone is working hard. But what’s gonna give us that extra boost?
“Are they gonna try and use their physical ability, because their physical ability will only take them so far. We have that extra edge by having the mental ability to push, along with our physical ability.”
Taking punches from teammates may be an unorthodox manner of breeding that extra edge, but the resulting tenacity has trickled down throughout the roster.
The team looked forward to those early Friday mornings. In conjunction with Butler’s scheduled meditation sessions, the Gators — months removed from a season-ending meltdown — now consider mental toughness a strength.
And they’re looking to carve their identity around it.
Despite Westbrook’s absence, Florida’s defense will dictate its image.
And much like it did in the ring, UF’s newfound mental strength will help it roll with the punches.
“We went in there ready to fight,” Williams said.
“Throw us in the fire, we’re ready to battle, we’re ready to fight. That’s just how it is.”
Contact Alejandro López at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @ajlb95.
Florida's Ronni Williams shoots the ball during UF's 92-69 loss to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament on March 4, 2016, in the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena.