University of Florida

UF women’s basketball preview: Gritty team now has depth

Florida players Cassie Peoples, right, and Kayla Lewis, left, answer a question during a news conference at the SEC women’s basketball media day in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014.
Florida players Cassie Peoples, right, and Kayla Lewis, left, answer a question during a news conference at the SEC women’s basketball media day in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014. AP

Florida’s women’s basketball team was so short-handed last season that coach Amanda Butler’s squad couldn’t even scrimmage 5-on-5.

But a resilient, overachieving group overcame a slew of injuries and transfers, storming to a 20-13 season and reaching the NCAA Tournament before losing in the season round.

Now, the Gators return with depth, and expectations have elevated.

“This group has really taken that challenge of what they did last year — because they all played giant roles, they were all important in different ways — and were just motivated and inspired by that,” said Butler, in her eighth season at her alma mater.

“They’re not resting on their laurels or comfortable with all they were able to do with less, but motivated and inspired to do more and to know, ‘Look at what we did with a bunch of short kids and no bench.’ We’ve got depth now. We’ve got size now. We’ve still got to have that same sort of fight and spirited resilience and all the things they possessed last year, but we’ve got some of those other things that there was nothing we could do about last year.”

Florida is led by forward Kayla Lewis — the team’s lone senior and unquestioned leader. In 2013, Lewis topped the Gators in rebounding (8.7 per game) and was second on the team in scoring (12.2).

“Kayla is just an amazing young lady all the way around,” Butler said. “Our team changes [the way we] look when she’s out there on the floor.”

Lewis’ tag-team partner is sophomore standout Ronni Williams, a skilled 6-foot combo player.

They’re joined by a quintet of juniors — Carlie Needles, Cassie Peoples, January Miller, Antoinette Bannister and Viktorija Dimatie — as well as a pair of talented freshmen forwards — Haley Lorenzen and Brooke Copeland — to round out a deep supporting cast.

“We’re coming off such a fun year last year,” Butler said.

“Great group of returners, awesome group of newcomers, and just a bunch of women that really like each other and love being Gators.

At 6-3, Lorenzen — the Iowa Gatorade player of the year — is poised to make an immediate impact as a true post player for the Gators. As is Dimatie, a 6-4 center who missed the entire 2013 season with an ACL injury.

“Last year, we played essentially with no height at all. We always had to say, ‘Smaller is better,’’ Needles said.

“Our defense is going to be different and our offense is going to be a little bit different. Now we just have to use it to our advantage.”

Peoples (11.8 points, 3.7 assists) and Williams (8.1 points, 5.5 rebounds) lead a rich, explosive backcourt, and scoring isn’t an issue for Florida’s up-tempo attack (74.9 points per game).

But the Gators hemorrhaged points last season, and Butler knows they must shore up their defensive deficiencies if they want to take the next step as a program.

“This year we look to be a much better defensive unit than we were last year,” Butler said. “The way they will compete, you should see that on the court.”

Florida opens the season against Jacksonville on Friday.

UF women’s basketball at a glance

▪ Coach: Amanda Butler, 8th season at Florida

▪ Last season: 20-13, lost to Penn State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament

▪ Top players: Kayla Lewis (6-0, Sr., G/F), Ronni Williams (6-0, Soph., G/F), Cassie Peoples (5-6, Jr.. G)

▪ Noteworthy: The Gators, a team with just nine scholarship players, made the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time since 2011-12.

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