Gators win on ‘SEC-Eve’

Stepping back almost onto the Gators logo in the middle of the Stephen C. O’Connell Center floor, Jordan Jones released an Erving Walker-esque three-point shot near the end of the first half for the Gators. The shot was pure, her second three-pointer of the night and sent a buzz throughout the crowd.

Jones hit her third shot from behind the arc to open the second half, picking the team up where it left off in the first half. She finished with 13 points, along with a season-high and team-high 17 from Deana Allen and the Gators women’s basketball team finished its non-conference schedule with an impressive 81-56 win against Samford on Wednesday night.

“It was great to see Jordan get us out of the gates that way and Deana followed suit, JT had a nice shooting night, you know, but for the most part great defense is where we got most of our momentum from,” coach Amanda Butler said.

It was a dominating performance for the Gators (10-3) to close out its 2011 calendar season, both offensively and defensively.

More than once, tough defense turned into quick offense for the Gators. After being burned on backdoor passes twice earlier in the first half, Azania Stewart responded with a pair of blocks on backdoor-attempts by Samford.

“She is really smart and anticipates,” Butler said. “What I was really proud of Azania tonight for though was after disappointment in the first half offensively, that she was really offensively aggressive and confident in the second half and made some really nice plays that hopefully will start a trend in the other direction.”

Stewart finished with six second-half points, along with three blocks. The blocks often allowed the Gators to get out on the fast break.

“Azania is the whole reason why when our offense works the best it normally does,” Butler said. “Because Azania is protecting the basket in the paint and anticipating and blocking the shots the way she does. It really allows JT and Nita and Deana, Jordan, Shine, you know those guys, to get out and really pressure without any fear of getting beat and that’s a great comfort.”

The strong play inside allowed for a balanced night from the Gators’ backcourt. Along with the 13 from Jones and 17 from Allen, Jaterra Bonds and Lanita Bartley also finished in double figures for the Gators, with 15 and 10 respectively.

Jennifer George picked up her fifth consecutive double-double, with 10 points and 13 rebounds.

Balance was the story of the night for the Gators. The team had five players scoring in double figures for the first time since March 4, 2011, when the Gators accomplished the feat against Tennessee in the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament quarterfinals.

It was also only the second time this season that every player who suited up for the Gators was able to also score. San Francisco was the lone other occurrence.

This balance is something coach Butler finds great satisfaction in.

“I think it just makes us really hard to guard,” she said. “I would much rather have a team that has five or six kids averaging ten points than one kid who is averaging twenty five and the rest are averaging three or four points.”

For Deana Allen, the outburst in scoring is something she has been working consistently on in practice. Highly touted as one of the better perimeter defenders in the conference, Allen has been working to develop her game on both ends of the floor.

“I’ve just been working real hard in practice and not being indecisive and hesitant about my decisions,” Allen said. “I feel like when I am hesitant, that’s when I make mistakes or I turn over the ball or I’m not as confident in my shooting.”

Getting her share of the points is not something she does for herself, but something she feels she needs to do for her teammates.

“My teammates have been setting real good screens, so I felt like I had to reward them, as well,” Allen said.

Samford was the final tune-up for the Gators before entering a grueling conference schedule. Next up is a Kentucky team that is currently No. 6.

“We were looking at this ballgame as ‘SEC-Eve’, kind of liken it to the holidays,” Butler said. “You are excited for Christmas Eve because Christmas is coming, well SEC-season is coming.”

After opening their season with 10 consecutive wins, the Wildcats lost their first game on December 18 to Notre Dame, 92-83. They followed their first loss with a dominating performance of their own over Samford.

The team knows that even with the success it has had so far this season, conference play is an entirely knew animal.

“The great thing about this time of year is the ladies get the chance to really just focus on basketball because their not in classes,” Butler said. “Everything that we’ve done to this point, we’ve got to find another level. We’ve got to find ways to improve, ways to be more mature, to be more dedicated, more committed, more intense. You’ve got to take it to another level.”

After a poor performance in conference play last season, the Gators are looking to get the sour taste out of their mouth.

“Obviously things didn’t go our way last year, so we’re excited, I know I’m excited to start the SEC off on a good note, just try and bounce back from last season,” Allen said. “I’m excited it’s almost here.”

The much-anticipated conference opener for the Gators is on New Year’s Day, with tip-off at 1 p.m.

You can follow Gator Country writer Phillip Heilman on twitter at phillip_heilman.