The plan is one game at a time, but the season-long goal already has been discussed.
NCAA tournament or bust.
“The win against South Carolina was pivotal,” said UF assistant Susie Gardner, who subbed for coach Amanda Butler during a recent press conference earlier this week. “As a staff we’re still talking about the NCAA tournament. After the game against Georgia we were 2-2 and we decided to talk to our players about it. Sometimes as a coaching staff you have to ask yourself, can the players handle it? Do you want that added pressure? We felt like we had nothing to lose by telling them.”
Florida sat out last year’s NCAAs after a forgettable 9-22 season. This year, the Gators, who host Vanderbilt on Thursday, are off to a 14-6 start, including a 3-2 record in Southeastern Conference play.
There are nine regular-season conference games left. Four more league wins probably merits a postseason pass.
“We let them know how important the South Carolina game was to help us keep going in that direction,” Gardner said. “What’s exciting for us is that, unlike BCS football, our future’s in our hands. How we finish out the season will determine if we go back to the NCAA tournament at Florida. We needed to plant the seed. Where they take it is up to them.”
Consistency is key. Florida has played well against the SEC’s weaker teams, but struggled against one of the SEC’s best, 17th-ranked Georgia, which throttled UF, 82-55, last week at the O’Connell Center.
“Georgia played exceptional basketball,” Gardner said. “We were hyped, maybe a little too excited. We missed a lot of shots early. But we bounced back from that. You don’t want to turn one loss into two losses and we did not.”
The Gators rebounded with a 60-57 win at South Carolina last weekend. Sustaining momentum won’t be easy. Vanderbilt (14-6, 3-2) beat Georgia, 67-59.
“Now we have Vanderbilt, a very good basketball team,” Gardner said. “Always has been. We had a great crowd against Georgia. We want to play great in front of the same amount of people.”
Florida’s rebounding will have to improve. The Gators were outrebounded by 12 against South Carolina and by 15 against Georgia.
“Part of it is the size of the opponent,” Gardner said. “With South Carolina, you have 6-6, 6-4. At Georgia, you have a Tasha Humphrey, who’s a Kodak All-America and you have Angel Robinson, who’s about 6-5 as well.
Part of it’s size. Anieka Henry (6-3) is the tallest we have and she’s a junior-college transfer and she’s being introduced into a new level of play and then you have Marshae Dotson, who’s maybe 6-foot and Sharielle Smith, who’s maybe 5-11.
“We may be outrebounded the rest of the season – hopefully not — but we had some huge rebounds (against South Carolina). Marshae had one. Aneika had one. It is something we need to address. But you can win basketball games if you’re outrebounded — if you get the right ones.”
Interior points, like rebounds, have been difficult to come by. Henry scored just one point against South Carolina and was shut out against Georgia.
“Aneika tends to thrive against the smaller defenders because, again, she has the height advantage,” Gardner said. “She’s still learning the physicality and the level of play in the conference. She’s going to have to do different things — get rebounds, play defense or alter some shots. Scoring may not be what Aneika brings to our team.”
The Gators have relied on productive play off their bench. Kim Critton, a springy 5-7 junior guard, who delivered six points in 13 minutes against Georgia and eight points in 13 minutes at Arkansas, contributions that did not go unnoticed by those on the bench.
“Something’s going to happen. It could be a travel. It could be an and-one,” Gardner said, referring to an old-fashioned three-point play. “But something’s going to happen.”