UF women’s hoops season review

It was a season full of dramatic moments.

There was heartbreak. There were tears.

There was a group of players so nervous they could hardly sit to watch as the 2012 NCAA Tournament field was announced. A team on the precipice of returning to the biggest stage in women’s college basketball, a place the program had not seen in three years.

Ultimately, there was joy. There was success.

Not simply in the burst of excitement that overflowed when the program saw its name flash across the screen, signifying the program’s 13th NCAA Tournament berth.

It was a lasting joy. One that a group of five seniors who will never again don the Florida Gators uniform will take with them for the rest of their lives.

The 2011-12 Florida women’s basketball season was a roller coaster ride of emotions and dramatic moments that eventually set what the team hopes to be the foundation of the program moving forward.

“We set something in place, and we gave them a model to kind of look after,” senior Jordan Jones said after the season.

However, the rewards came with a certain amount of sacrifice and adversity.

It was a team that had to learn to play without a full cast of supporting players.

Before the season began, the Gators lost two freshmen, Carlie Needles and Viktorija Dimaite, for the season with injuries. The third, Andrea Vilaro Aragones, missed time early in the season following the death of her mother.

Kayla Lewis, who was expected to be a versatile player, able to both start and come off the bench, played just three games before also being medically redshirted.

Despite being hampered with injuries, especially early in the season, Florida opened the season winning six of its first seven games.

When the selection committee announced that Florida had made the tournament, Greg Christopher, the committee chairman, stated the Gators were on of the “last four in.” Along with Texas, Michigan and Kansas State, the Gators had done enough to earn a spot in the Big Dance.

Just enough.

Florida’s ability to open the season winning six of seven ended up being crucial at the end of the season.

In those first seven games, Florida beat No. 19 Florida State, a team that had an uncharacteristically poor season but was still looked at favorably as a strong win for the Gators, and Hampton, a team that went on to win the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

A month later during the Christmas break, a time when some teams schedule cupcake opponents that ultimately do little in improving resumes, the Gators beat Samford, who won the Southern Conference Tournament and also landed in the NCAA Tournament.

Without each of these non-conference wins, Florida had 12 in all, the Gators certainly would have been staring at another trip to the WNIT.

As the regular season shifted into conference play, Florida was forced to buckle its proverbial seatbelt.

A meeting with No.6 Kentucky to ring in the New Year proved to be a microcosm for much of the Gators’ conference slate of games.

Florida battled throughout the game, eventually just missing out on a possible upset as the Gators failed to overcome 23 turnovers in the game. Losing 59-56 proved Florida could play with the conference’s best, but it needed to learn to finish games.

Ultimately, that was something the team wrestled with much of the season.

While Florida beat each of the four teams that eventually finished below it in the conference standings, taking the next step and beating better opponents proved to be a tough task.

The Gators lost six conference games by six points or less. Repeatedly losing close games was tough.

Florida’s two overtime losses were gut-wrenching.

On Jan. 29, Florida traveled to Arkansas to face a red-hot Razorbacks team had been throttling teams the past two weeks.

Arkansas had beaten Auburn, Vanderbilt and LSU each by 20 points or more. Mississippi State escaped with just a 16-point beating three days before the Gators came to town.

Despite the momentum Arkansas rode into the game, Florida came out firing on all cylinders. The Gators were up 38-26 at halftime.

With 4:06 remaining in the second half, Florida still held a commanding 11-point lead.

Arkansas stormed back, tying the game for good in regulation with 24 seconds to play.

Eventually, Florida’s bid to slow the Razorbacks came up just short. The Gators lost 73-72 in double overtime, leaving many to believe the Gators didn’t have the makeup necessary to win big games.

However, as it was for the entire season, the team rebounded.

Three days later, the Gators, fresh off the stunning loss to Arkansas, traveled into Baton Rouge and beat LSU at home for the first time since Jan. 21, 1996.

Even more impressive, Florida won without its second-leading scorer Jordan Jones. Jones suffered a concussion in the loss to Arkansas and was forced to watch the Gators play the Tigers from the bench.

“I can’t even say how proud of my team I am. It killed me more than anything to sit out but watching them step up and win was perfect. Go Gators!!!” Jones posted on her Facebook after the game.

The win sparked a three-game win streak that put the Gators at 16-8 and 6-5 in the conference. It was the first time on the season Florida was above .500 in SEC play.

Florida was unable to stay above .500 as the Gators’ inability to finish games once again reared its ugly head.

The Gators dropped back-to-back games at South Carolina and at Vanderbilt.

Florida’s loss to Vanderbilt made even the earlier loss to Arkansas seem to be little more than a minor setback.

Looking to regain a winning conference record, Florida traveled to Nashville to play a Vanderbilt team looking for its twentieth win on the season.

The Gators and Commodores squared off in a back-and-fourth battle. The teams traded punches throughout the game, with neither team able to take a commanding lead.

With just more than a minute left, Florida scratched and clawed to a three-point advantage.

An error at the scorers table gave Vanderbilt about 15 extra seconds as the clock failed to start properly and nobody seemed to notice.

Still, after two free throws by Lanita Bartley with 11 seconds remaining, Florida clung to a 65-62 lead. 

The Gators played stifling defense for the final 11 seconds, forcing Vanderbilt’s Christina Foggie into an off-balance, tightly guarded three-point attempt at the buzzer.

The ball slammed against the backboard and caught just enough iron to roll around the rim.

It went in.

As the crowd inside the Memorial Gym went crazy, Florida was left wondering what else could possibly be thrown its way. The Gators couldn’t rebound in overtime and lost 75-69.

For the second time in just more than two weeks, Florida had watched a seemingly sure win evaporate into thin air.

Again, a level of doubt began to seep in.

Was this team capable of winning a close game? With just three games remaining on its regular season slate, Florida needed to answer that question in the affirmative.

Mock selections became all the rage as February was coming to a close. Following the loss to Vanderbilt, the nation’s experts had mixed feelings on this Gators team.

Three days later, Florida again responded. This time, it was with a season-defining win.

No.15 Georgia rolled into Gainesville looking for a repeat of its 61-55 win against Florida in Athens early in the year.

However, that do-or-die, back-against-the-wall attitude the Gators seemed to thrive with proved to be true once more. Behind a late 8-3 run, Florida got the close-game monkey off its back, upsetting Georgia 61-57.

Florida split its remaining two games and won a game in the SEC Tournament before dropping a third nail biter to Kentucky in the second round.

With nervous anticipation, Florida learned it would face Ohio State in the First Round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. As a No.9 seed, the Gators upset the Buckeyes 70-65.

The Gators advanced to face top-seed Baylor, an undefeated juggernaut led by the sport’s most one-of-a-kind player, Brittney Griner.

Florida’s season came to an end on March 20 against Baylor. Griner scored a game-high 25, including a dunk that caught the attention of the national media.

Still, the 76-57 left Florida with little to hang its head about.

“They’re a great team. They certainly have an outstanding individual, but they’re a great team, and I think that’s what they showed in their victory against us,” Amanda Butler said a few days after the game. “There was absolutely nothing for any of our team to hang their heads about.”

The Gators finished the season 20-13, the second consecutive year the Gators reached 20 wins, and 8-8 in the SEC.

Before the season, the Gators were picked to finish fifth in the conference standings. In the end, the Gators finished eighth in the nation’s top conference.

For a team graduating five seniors, only two of who had previously gotten the chance to play in the NCAA Tournament, it was a special season both individually and for the program moving forward.

Lanita Bartley, Jordan Jones, Deana Allen, Ndidi Madu and Azania Stewart all had a chance to go to the Big Dance before going their separate ways.

“They all came to us in such different ways, and they are all such special and unique young ladies,” Butler said. “The best thing I can tell you is it was an honor to coach them.”

Led by that group of seniors, Butler now has 98 wins, the most a Gators head coach has had through the first five years in program history.

Moving forward, Butler will have the tough task of maintain that success as five of her most-talented players exit at once.

With the five seniors not returning next season, along with Brittany Shine’s announcement of her intent to transfer before next season, Florida has much to fill heading into the 2012-13 season.

The Gators will be returning just 38.3 percent of its points from last season and just 37.2 percent of minutes played.

Despite losing the majority of the team’s production, Butler is excited about what she has returning.

“I think when you talk about talent loss and production loss, I don’t think that we’ve been in a situation where we’re returning a First Team All-SEC player,” she said. “We have that in Jennifer going into her senior year.”

“She [Jennifer George] is going to be the best player on the team,” Jordan Jones added.

Returning with George will be Jaterra Bonds. Bonds averaged more than 29 minutes per game in her sophomore season and will be looked to for even more production next season.

Joining Bonds in the frontcourt will be Carlie Needles, who spent much of the year rehabilitating from a knee injury that cost her the entire season.

“I think she is going to be a fan-favorite for Gators fans,” Jones said of Needles.

Viktorija Dimaite and Kayla Lewis will be returning from their own injury-riddled seasons. Along with a freshman class of Sydney Moss, Chandler Cooper, Christin Mercer and January Miller, the Gators will have plenty of new bodies looking to fill the roles left by this season’s senior class.

It will be a different looking team when next season begins. One in transition. The changing of the guard.

While there is sure to be growing pains with such a young team, the success of this year’s team, capped by a trip to the NCAA Tournament, has the Gators confident moving forward.

“I definitely think our success this year is going to motivate us next year,” Jennifer George said. “We’ve been to the tournament now, and we just expect to go to the tournament again and actually go farther.”

With high aspirations, the Gators will be working hard throughout the offseason. Championship-caliber teams are not born; they are made.

At a University so rich in championships, Butler and her women’s basketball program are fighting to make one more.

“I think these young ladies who are going out set a standard that the kids who are returning will fight very hard to improve upon,” she said. “We are all ready to do that.”