Florida women among ‘last four in’

After the first three regions had been announced, Florida’s name still had not been called. For as confident as the team was, receiving an at-large bid after finishing eighth in the Southeastern Conference regular season standings was certainly not assured.

“Just sitting there the whole time waiting to see our name pop up was nerve-racking,” Deana Allen said. “Every time a couple names was shown, my heart would beat faster and faster.”

“Sitting around waiting — I was talking to my friends, there’s a big difference between the top teams in the country who know they’re in and how they feel watching that show and the teams sitting around crossing their fingers,” Jordan Jones said. “It was the longest 30-minute wait of my life.”

Finally, Florida’s name was called. A matchup against Ohio State, a team the Florida women’s program has never faced before.

The selection committee pegged the Gators as one of the last four teams selected to be in the tournament. By some estimations, Florida was the last team chosen to be in the field.

For a team making its first appearance in the tournament in three years, none of that matters.

“I don’t care – last four in, first four in – we’re in and that’s all that matters at this point,” Jones said. “I’m thankful we’re in and that’s all I have to say about that.”

The Gators were much maligned throughout the season because of the close losses they continued to rack up. Games against many of the SEC’s top teams slipped away late in the game.

Had they won a few more of those games, the team would certainly have been in. However, the fact those losses were close losses, with Florida proving it could play with each team, was enough to give them the final push past other bubble teams around the nation.

“ When you look at the bigger picture and wider scale, I think just the consistency that our team played with,” Amanda Butler said. “They played at a consistent high- level all throughout January and February, and I think that was certainly a factor.”

Certainly another factor was Florida’s strong non-conference schedule. Both the men and women’s selection committees put a strong emphasis on rewarding teams that played top-level competition out of conference.

For the Gators, playing against Michigan and Rutgers, although both were losses, showed a willingness to play strong teams.

Beating the likes of Samford and Hampton, both eventual conference champions, as well as Florida State, a team that underachieved but was widely respected at the beginning of the year, was what put Florida in the tournament.

Those Top 50 and Top 100 RPI games and wins improved Florida’s resume to the point it was not left on the outside looking in.

Having gotten in, Florida is looking to prove itself worthy of the selection. That tough regular season schedule, combined with having five seniors on the team, is something the team feels gives it a leg up in the tournament.

“If you’re filling out a bracket, I think a lot of people look for experience and then a good post game is something that can consistently carry you,” Jones said. “With the way Jennifer George has been playing all season long, and then Azania Stewart playing her best basketball late in the season here, I like our chances.”

“We tell our team at the beginning of the year that we’re doing this on purpose, this isn’t just we have a bunch of games we happen to be playing against good teams,” Butler said. “We have a purpose to prepare us first and foremost for the SEC season because we know how grueling and competitive that’s going to be and then give us a chance at an at-large opportunity if that’s what our fate is.”

Relying on an at-large bid was the team’s fate this season. For the first time since 2008-09, the team did enough to receive one.

With a first round game against Ohio State, the Gators are not just happy to be there, but ready to take advantage of the opportunity — especially against Ohio State.

“You want to beat anyone in any sport and Ohio State obviously has had a nice little rivalry with Florida,” Jones said. “Florida has come out successful in a lot of that, so we don’t want to ruin that streak.”

Follow Gator Country writer Phillip Heilman on Twitter at @phillip_heilman.