UF prepares for NCAA Tournament

Having not made the NCAA Tournament since the 2008-09 season, Florida’s women’s basketball team has only two players who have competed in it.

Of the team’s five seniors, only Ndidi Madu and Azania Stewart were on the Gators’ active roster for the team’s 70-57 win against Temple in the First Round of the 2009 NCAA Tournament and the team’s 87-59 loss to Connecticut in the Second Round.

Deana Allen had yet to transfer to Florida, still playing basketball for Pensacola Junior College. Lanita Bartley was playing basketball in Gainesville, but for Santa Fe College. She also transferred to Florida following that season.

Jordan Jones was a member of that Florida team. However, she was redshirting that season having transferred from South Carolina following her freshman season the year before.

Despite the number of veteran players Florida has, the 12:15 p.m. game on Sunday will be a totally new animal for nearly all the players who step on the floor.

However, the team can look within for advice on how to approach playing in the NCAA Tournament.

Both head coach Amanda Butler and assistant coach Murriel Page have experience playing in the NCAA Tournament.

Page, who played for the Gators from 1994-98, was a highly decorated player during her time at Florida.

She was named to the First Team All-SEC in 1997 and 1998. Also in 1998, she was finalist for the Naismith Player of the Year.

Butler was on the first Gators team to compete in the NCAA Tournament in 1993. However, it is Page that the players should be looking at to see a high-level of success, Butler said.

“I was very blessed to be on the first team that made it to the tournament, but Murriel Paige was on the most successful team that has ever been here,” she said. “I think the lessons that she can share as a player are much more than what I can share. The only thing that we did was make it to the Second Round. I would love to see our teams go way past that and get closer to what Murriel’s teams did.”

In 1997, Florida was a No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region. The Gators won three games before dropping the Regional Final to top-seeded Old Dominion.

The next season, Florida repeated as a No. 3 seed, that time in the West Region. The Gators won two games before losing to second-seeded Duke in the Regional Semifinals.

Those two teams were the most successful in the history of the Florida women’s basketball program.

It was also in the middle of a run of sustained success for the program. Florida made the NCAA Tournament each season from 1993-1999.

Since then, the Florida program has had trouble consistently finding itself in the tournament.

Since Butler has taken over, Florida has made two NCAA Tournament appearances in her five seasons. This time around, she said she is better prepared.

“I hope so,” she said. “You want to think that you’re better in different ways.”

Just as she expects her players to push to be better each season, she expects the same from herself and her staff.

Jones, who could only watch Florida’s last tournament appearance on the bench, said this team as a whole was better prepared for the NCAA Tournament

“I think we have been tested a lot more than we were that first year,” she said. “I think that first year we had a lot more success in the SEC regular season play. This year, we’ve experienced highs, we’ve experienced lows, and now we know if we don’t take care of business, we are done.”

The 2008-09 team was 9-5 in the Southeastern Conference compared to this season’s team that finished 8-8.

For Jones, this trip is special not just because she is able to play, but because of who she is able to play in front of.

“My grandparents haven’t seen me play since high school, so they will be there,” she said.

In all, she said she requested more than 20 passes for family coming to see Florida take on Ohio State on Sunday.

Jones will be playing directly in front of a large contingency of family and friends, but the entire team is playing for the Florida program as a whole, Butler said.

From the amount of calls, texts and tweets she has gotten from people connected to the program, she said she, as well as the team, knows all eyes are watching them this weekend.

“All the Gators that have worn the jersey before them and coaches that were here and families of those players are paying attention and cheering for them,” she said. “That is significant. When you’ve got the chance to do something special and be on this national stage, I think it is important to grasp that.”

Follow Gator Country writer Phillip Heilman on Twitter at phillip_heilman.