Amanda Butler could not have planned her debut game as Florida’s head coach any better as the Gators used a complete team effort in defeating Xavier, 82-71, Friday evening in front of 3,330 in the 2007-08 season opener for both schools.
“The biggest thing had nothing to do with strategy or game plan. It was show your Gator pride and the team really came out and did that,” said Butler, who became the sixth consecutive Gator head coach to earn a win in their inaugural Florida game. “When things didn’t go our way, we didn’t drop our head. We stuck our chest out and were ready for the next play, whatever that was. We had everybody on our team step up at different times and make plays for us and that is what good players do. Players make plays. I am really proud of the way we played and battled.”
Senior Depree Bowden (Palmetto, Fla.) and sophomore Brittaney Thomas (Montgomery, Ala.) scored 17 points each, while junior Sha Brooks (Jackson, Tenn.) tallied 16 points and junior Marshae Dotson (Columbus, Ohio) added 14 points
While Bowden, Brooks and Dotson have become accustomed to notching double-figure scoring efforts during their careers, it was a first for Thomas, who made the most of her first career start.
“I felt like I played well,” Thomas said. “I just have to do whatever I need to while playing point guard. I have to keep working hard and continue to develop as a point guard and help the team.”
“She is quicker than most of the kids you are ever going to watch,” Butler said. “She made plays when she had the opportunity, yet held her composure. That is a hard thing to do. When the ball was in her hands tonight, we knew something good was going to happen.”
The Musketeers, who are the defending Atlantic 10 champions, scored the opening bucket of the second half to take a 34-31 lead. Gator junior Aneika Henry (Coconut Grove, Fla.), who finished the game with six points, four rebounds and three blocks, slipped in a short jumper and Bowden followed with a driving layup to give Florida a one-point advantage.
The lead changed hands four more times during the next three-plus minutes, before Thomas hit a jumper in the paint to give Florida a 40-39 lead with 16:40 remaining. The Musketeers got within one point before Bowden canned a pair from the charity stripe to keep the small cushion.
Jerri Taylor, who led all scorers with 26 points, followed with one free throw and Xavier was within two, 44-42, at the 14:38 mark. Brooks then stepped up and hit Florida’s first three-pointer of the season after the Gators had missed eight straight. Sophomore Lonnika Thompson (New Orleans) followed with a trey and the Gator’s lead was eight, 50-42.
Xavier star Amber Harris, who finished with 21 points, hit one of her four three-pointers and pulled the visitors within five at the 11:29 mark, but that’s when Florida ripped off a game-changing 21-7 run over the next five minutes to take a 71-52 lead with 6:42 remaining.
Six different Gators scored during the run, while two others dished assists and another collected a steal en route to the victory and avenge last year’s 86-70 loss to the Musketeers.
Xavier led most of the first half, but the tide turned less than a minute before half time. Thomas’ steal in the final minute allowed the Gators to take the lead after she made a free throw. A Florida foul in the final seconds, however, allowed Xavier to go into halftime with a 32-31 lead.
The Musketeers continued to battle and cut the deficit to eight points twice in the final two and half minutes of the game, but freshman Ndidi Madu (Antioch, Tenn.) countered one with a bucket in the lane and Thomas nailed a 3-pointer after the other to quell any thoughts of a Xavier comeback.
Florida did show the characteristic toughness that their new head coach was known for during her playing days as a Gator. The 2007-08 squad rallied from the halftime deficit after posting a 2-18 record last year when trailing after the first 20 minutes of play. The Gators also out-rebounded their taller foes, 43-39.
Florida returns to the court on Monday, November 12, when the Gators play host to Robert Morris beginning at 7 p.m. The game will be available live on GatorVision OnLine through GatorZone.com, while the audio can be heard WRUF AM850 and through GatorZone.com.