UF women’s hoops at a crossroads

Having not made the NCAA Tournament since the 2008-09 season, the Florida women’s basketball program is seeking to avoid a trip to the NIT for the third consecutive season.

The season is at a crossroads.

In one direction, there is the ability to learn from their close losses and have them translate to more victories moving forward. In the other, another season without a tournament appearance awaits.

Through three games of conference play, the Gators have just a 1-2 record. With both losses coming at home by a combined eight points, a certain level of frustration has to be felt when looking at missed opportunities.

In their two losses at home, to Kentucky and South Carolina, the Gators outscored both opponents in the second half. In fact, against South Carolina, they won the second half by an 11-point margin. 

This season, the team really has not had 40 minutes of Florida basketball. Coach Amanda Butler alluded to that fact following South Carolina.

They erased an early nine-point hole and played a strong first half of basketball against Mississippi. However, they struggled in the second half and had to hang on to win.

Against South Carolina, the team put up one of the worst halves of basketball ever. It then responded with a five-minute stretch of play to open the second half that was the best we have seen this season.

But the fact remains; this team cannot continue to burden itself by turning the ball over at the rate it has been. In a league as talented as the SEC, it is exceptionally difficult to compete when you constantly are shooting yourself in the foot.

Instead, the team ends up with a series of close losses. While the losses themselves are not crippling, the missed opportunities that pile up eventually will be. 

“Every ballgame is going to be won or lost on one or two or three possessions, so you’ve got to value the ball when you have it,” Amanda Butler said.

The number of turnovers this team has had does not indicate they place a strong value on ball control. Too many careless passes end up either out of bounds or in the hands of the other team.

It is not just the number of turnovers that is disappointing, but also when the turnovers come. In the last handful of games, the Gators have turned the ball over on many early possessions, often even during their first possession of the game.

“I think the disappointing turnovers are things like the first possession of the ballgame when we turn the ball over,” Butler said. “We’ve not gotten out of the gates well, and that’s really baffling.”

The first five minutes and the last five minutes of the game are crucial for this team, but also somewhere where they have really struggled. This is a group of players that plays much better once it has made a few shots, gotten their legs under them and gained some confidence.

Avoiding early turnovers, and getting off to a strong start, creates a different mindset both for the Gators and the opponent.

“We need to establish ourselves early, we start slow every game and that’s something that the coaches are going to work on changing for us and making things a little different for us,” Jordan Jones said. “But definitely, starting early and maintaining that and not having any slip-ups, like coach Butler said, we need to play 40 minutes of Florida basketball and we haven’t put together even half of that in an SEC game this season.”

Conversely, the Gators have also really struggled to find offense in the final minutes of close games. Against South Carolina, the team recovered from its slow start and found itself in position to steal a win at home.

However, they were unable to continue to do the things on offense that had gotten them back into the game. Coming down the stretch, they looked confused on offense.

“I think composure is what we need to do better on in the games, or at the five-minute mark to separate ourselves,” Jennifer George said. “I think we’re not doing that consistently enough. I just think we have what it takes right now but we’re just a step away.”

A step away means losing games. So does a combined 59 turnovers in three games to open conference play.

The Gators were able to stay afloat early in the season despite turnover problems. In this league, the talent level is too great to recover from early holes and long scoring droughts.

Things do not get any easier starting Thursday at Georgia. The Lady Bulldogs represent the first of five remaining games for the Gators against teams currently ranked in the Top 25 polls.

If the Gators can begin cutting down their turnovers and winning games, the team will be in a good position to make the NCAA tournament. If not, relegation to the NIT looms large.

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