Two years ago, Florida’s women’s basketball team overcame a slew of injuries and transfers to reach the NCAA Tournament.
The Gators played with grit, spirit and resiliency, so expectations were elevated last season when a deeper and improved roster reported to campus.
Instead, Florida flopped.
Amanda Butler’s team stumbled to a 13-17 record — the school’s first losing season since 2009-10.
The Gators’ head coach thought her team lost its fight and resolve, so this summer Butler took Florida off the hardwood and into the ring.
“We want to be tough,” said Butler, in her ninth season coaching her alma mater. “We want to cultivate toughness. If you’ve ever had the experience of boxing it’s not just physical toughness and ‘Can you throw a punch? Can you take a punch?’ There’s stamina, endurance, skill and technique way beyond how hard can I hit somebody.
“That’s something we want to lead with. We think we’re talented. We think we’re deep, but we want to be the toughest team on the floor every single night.”
It starts with finishing games.
The Gators’ inability to close games killed them during the 2014-15 campaign, losing six times by six points or less. They believe the challenging sparring session and added team unity will help the turnaround.
“We had a lot of close losses last year,” Butler said. “The returning group knows how close they were to having a much, much better season. … You’re going to see a much different team that is unwilling to lose close ballgames.”
Florida won’t actually look all that different though, as the Gators return a veteran roster headlined by 6-foot junior Ronni Williams.
The combo playmaker is UF’s top returning scorer (10.3 points per game) and rebounder (5.5 per game) and aims to lead UF back to the NCAA Tournament.
“Last [season] was a learning experience,” Williams said. “We had to learn from it. Now it’s time for us to better ourselves. … It’s time for us to win. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Sophomore center Haley Lorenzen, a freshman All-SEC performer last season, is expected to make a leap as Florida’s go-to post-player this season, while the Gators will also lean on a deep and experienced backcourt (seniors Carlie Needles, Cassies Peoples and January Miller).
“I see a new opportunity,” Lorenzen said. “A blank slate. I think people are just going to be really excited to see what we have to offer because we know we can put a better foot forward this year. We can really step up our expectations.”
UF needs to rediscover some offense, first.
Although Florida’s defense improved in last season, its explosive, up-tempo attack stalled, averaging 13 fewer points per game than the year before and shooting just 29 percent from downtown.
The Gators hemorrhaged turnovers as well, with 19.2 giveaways a game — good for No. 320 nationally.
Despite plenty of areas for improvement though, Butler likes her team’s direction, talent and newfound urgency.
“Our success is really going to be determined by how closely we fulfill our potential,” Butler said. “Every year we want to be champions. That doesn’t change. We’re Gators. That’s what we’re here to do.”
UF opens the season Nov. 13 at Temple.
Florida’s 2015-16 roster
G Dyandria Anderson, SO., 5-10; G Carla Batchelor, SR., 5-10; G/F Eleanna Christinaki, FR., 6-0; G Brooke Copeland, SO., 6-2; C Viktorija Dimaite, RSR., 6-4; C Tyshara Fleming, JR., 6-4; F Haley Lorenzen, SO., 6-3; G January Miller, SR., 5-8; Carlie Needles, RSR., 5-6; G Cassie Peoples, RSR., 5-6; G Simone Westbrook, JR., 5-8; G/F Ronni Williams, JR., 6-0; G Isis Young, RFR., 5-7
Florida’s 2015-16 schedule
Nov. 13 at Temple; Nov. 16 vs. Florida State; Nov. 21 vs. Kennesaw State; Nov. 24 vs. Savannah State; Nov. 27 vs. Ball State; Nov. 28 vs. Colorado or UMass; Dec. 1 at South Alabama; Dec. 7 vs. Arkansas State; Dec. 10 at Wisconsin; Dec. 13 vs. Robert Morris; Dec. 21 vs. NC State or Eastern Kentucky; Dec. 30 at UCF; Jan. 3 vs. Mississippi State; Jan. 7 at Tennessee; Jan. 10 at Ole Miss; Jan. 14 vs. Georgia; Jan. 17 vs. LSU; Jan. 21 vs. Alabama; Jan. 24 at Missouri; Jan. 28 at Arkansas; Jan. 31 vs. Kentucky; Feb. 4 vs. Texas A&M; Feb. 11 at South Carolina; Feb. 14 at Auburn; Feb. 18 vs. Vanderbilt; Feb. 21 at Georgia; Feb. 25 at LSU; Feb. 28 vs. Auburn