Tara Washington glanced down at her phone as it started to buzz.
It was an incoming call from her daughter, Delicia Washington, a freshman at the University of Florida.
A trembling voice was on the other side of the phone. Her mother could hear the tears and distress in her daughter’s voice.
“What’s going on?” Tara asked.
Amanda Butler, UF’s women’s basketball coach for the past 10 years, had just been dismissed by Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin following another lackluster season for the Gators.
Delicia, the team’s starting shooting guard, was devastated.
She was in her hometown of Macclenny, Florida, on March 6, 2017, visiting her alma mater Baker County High School when she heard the news. She immediately called her mother, trying to hold back sobs as the reality kicked in that the coach she and her family adored was leaving the program for good.
“I came here because of Butler,” Delicia said. “I came here for the coaching staff, not because it’s the University of Florida.”
Delicia, who’d developed a deep connection with Butler from the moment she’d been offered a scholarship by the coach during her sophomore year of high school, was suddenly in limbo. She didn’t know if she wanted to stick around in Gainesville or explore her options elsewhere.
“The first two, three, maybe four months (after Butler was fired), I was still emotional,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be here anymore.”
Now, just under a year after Butler’s firing, Delicia and her teammates are preparing to try and snake their way through the gauntlet that is the SEC Tournament. The Gators face Ole Miss today at 2:25 p.m. in Nashville, Tennessee, for the bracket’s first round.
But about 365 days ago, Delicia didn’t know if she would be a part of Florida’s 2017-18 campaign. With Butler gone, what was she supposed to do?
What were her plans?
Back then, she didn’t know.
She’d come to UF for a specific reason. But now, that reason was gone.
So what was keeping Delicia here?
* * *
Before Delicia wore the Gators' orange and blue for the first time, she grew up in Macclenny, just an hour away from where she’d eventually begin her college basketball career.
She began playing the sport when she was 7, competing against her cousins at local parks before joining her middle school’s team in sixth grade.
By the time she was a senior at Baker County, she was ranked as the No. 22 guard in the country, according to espnW. Pressure came with that national spotlight.
“Every team we played, everybody wanted to try to get better than me,” she said. “I just felt like it was a little bit tougher for me because I had a lot more competition coming my way.”
In addition to lighting it up on the hardwood, Delicia excelled on the diamond at Baker County. When she wasn’t averaging more than 25 points per game in the gym, Delicia was providing a spark on the school’s softball fields.
Delicia was a force in the batter’s box, hitting over .350 and blasting nine home runs in only 29 games during her senior season, according to MaxPreps. That year, led by the efforts of Delicia, Baker County made it to the semifinals of the state championship where it fell to Bayshore High School 5-1.
Delicia and her family also took frequent trips to Gainesville to watch Gators softball games.
However, it was the sport of basketball that led to Delicia’s eventual commitment to UF.
* * *
Delicia received her first call from Butler and Florida’s coaching staff during the latter part of her sophomore year at Baker County.
Butler, who’d just led the Gators to their third victory in an NCAA Tournament game over the past decade, was trying to navigate the program into the national spotlight as a legitimate championship contender.
Tara first met Butler at one of Delicia’s high school basketball games, where the relationship with her family began to bloom.
The then-Gators coach told Tara she’d been scouting Delicia for a while and was excited about the idea of bringing her to Gainesville.
“I loved Butler,” Tara said. “(Her hospitality) was awesome. She really welcomed us into Florida.”
After Delicia’s official recruiting visit, Butler invited the Washingtons over to her home for dinner that same night.
“We had spaghetti, salad, corn on the cob,” Tara said. “They even had a cake for us. She really welcomed us in.”
But the relationship that developed between Delicia and Butler was even greater.
The 5-foot-10 guard felt Butler was “the right coach” for her, and had no doubt in her mind that she wanted to play under her wing.
“I knew that if she ever gave me that offer, I wasn’t looking at anymore schools,” she said. “When she gave me that offer, I just took it right then and there.”
* * *
From the moment Delicia arrived on Florida’s campus during the summer of 2016, she found instant success. After a strong showing during UF’s offseason training program, she earned a spot in the starting lineup for Florida’s season opener against South Alabama.
She scored eight points on 4-of-6 shooting and grabbed six rebounds in her first game as a Gator.
The debut was the start of one of the best seasons by a UF freshman in program history.
Delicia averaged 11.1 points per game, pulled down 5.1 rebounds per game and cracked the starting lineup in 30 of 31 total on contests in 2016-17.
In a loss to Indiana on Dec. 20, 2016, she became just the fifth freshman in UF history to score more than 30 points in a single game. Delicia finished with 31 points on 11-of-22 shooting, grabbed seven rebounds and only turned the ball over twice in a game that saw Florida give away the rock 16 times.
Her success on the court led to an honor Florida had never seen a player receive before: the SEC Co-Freshman of the Year Award.
But her valiant efforts weren’t enough.
By the end of the season, Florida was under .500 for the third time in Butler’s tenure and didn’t see any postseason action following the SEC Tournament.
In Butler’s time at UF, the Gators didn’t win a single SEC Championship and failed to get past the second round in any of its four trips to the NCAA Tournament.
Stricklin — who’d just taken over for longtime athletic director Jeremy Foley less than five months prior — had seen enough. The results led to Butler's dismissal from the program, putting Florida on a hunt to find it’s next head coach.
* * *
For about three weeks, Delicia and her teammates didn’t know who was going to take the reigns of the program.
“I was hungry to find out what coach was coming in,” Delicia said. “I had to trust the process, that Scott Stricklin, he knew what he was doing, that he would bring the right coach in.”
But what really hurt Delicia was the fact she wouldn’t finish out her career with Butler as her head coach. The thought of leaving UF was a possibility.
Tara said Butler was in contention for a job at another Division I school. She even asked Delicia about going with her.
“She wanted to follow Butler,” Tara said. “Once Butler didn’t go into coaching, she just kept her mind focused on Florida.”
The idea of letting her teammates down began to sink in as well. A team that just lost its coach would be even worse off if it lost one of its top returners.
“They knew they needed me to be here with them,” Delicia said, “so I stuck through it.”
Delicia also talked to her parents to help get through the following weeks after Butler’s firing.
Tara remembers asking her daughter every other day if Stricklin had hired a new coach.
On March 27, Tara’s question was answered.
Stricklin officially announced that Cameron Newbauer, a former assistant at Georgia and head coach at Belmont, was moving to Gainesville to become the Gators' 10th head coach in program history.
Tara remembers the call her daughter made to tell her Florida had hired Newbauer.
“I asked her how she felt about it,” she said. “(Delicia) said she really missed Butler but she said ‘I gotta do what I gotta do.’”
* * *
It took Delicia several months to get over the emotional pain of her former coach’s firing.
But the young guard has embraced the new staff.
During the offseason, the Washingtons had a family gathering where they met Newbauer along with assistant coach Kelly Rae Finley.
Newbauer, along with Finley and her fellow assistants Laura Harper and John McCray, have started to utilize Delicia as a lead playmaker for this Gators squad. Throughout the season, Newbauer has harped on her improvement and her growth in maturity.
Her teammates, including ones that played with Delicia during her freshman year, agree with their head coach.
“She’s grown a lot in her maturity and also in her leadership. She has a huge role on our team,” forward Haley Lorenzen said. “I think she’s going to continue to improve and be a really great player, not to say she isn’t really good already.”
The growth in her game has shown this season.
While Delicia’s field-goal percentage has slightly dipped from last year and she’s scoring at a similar rate, her production in other areas has surged.
Delicia has been solid on the boards, collecting nearly nine rebounds per game, including 63 total on the offensive end.
She has also improved her passing ability. Delicia is averaging just under four assists per game and has more than doubled her total from last year.
“She has an incredible athletic ability, and now that she’s using it even more, it’s outstanding,” guard Funda Nakkasoglu said. “That’s been a major key this year for us.”
And now, for the next two years, Florida seems to have a solidified starter in its backcourt.
“Last year, she came out, was playing great. This year, she’s had to make adjustments,” guard Dyandria Anderson said. “She’s made those adjustments great. She’s shooting the three great, bringing the ball up and being a point guard. She’s just grown so much.”
Follow Justin Ahlum on Twitter @justinn_case1 and contact him at email@example.com.
Correction: Feb. 28, 2018
An earlier version of this article stated Delicia Washington did not play AAU basketball. She did play on the AAU circuit for Florida Girl's Basketball, a program based in Jacksonville.