Image: Tim Casey/GatorCountry.com
My third game in the Bay Area came on Wednesday night, with very much the same result. After seeing Stanford pummel the competition both on the Farm and on the road in Fresno, I took to the cozier confines of War Memorial Gym on the campus of the University of San Francisco to watch the Florida Gators.
I was not the only one of the 838 in attendance that cannot count themselves as regulars on the Dons campus: Gator player and Sacramento native Brittany Shine had her own cheering section in attendance, wearing Florida basketball shirts primarily emblazoned with “B Shine” or “Shine On” and the number 23 on the bright orange fabric. Shine’s mother even festooned placards for the crowd to wave with Brittany’s promo page from the Gators.
For Florida coach Amanda Butler, the pro-Florida road crowd was a welcome and expected sight.
“That was the idea when we recruited Brittany,” Butler said. “We promised her family that we would bring her back as much as we could. It’s hard, it’s a hard trip to incorporate but she’s got a great support system, great family, great high school coaches. People love her and you can understand why. She’s very magnetic and gives a lot of energy, a lot of positive energy. So it’s a great homecoming for her.”
Shine had an opportunity to pick up solid minutes in front of her friends and family, playing a respectable 20 minutes and picking up seven points and five rebounds. In fact, nearly the entire roster got into the act, with every Gator scoring at least four points, grabbing at least two rebounds and playing at least 13 minutes in the contest. That balanced attack led to a 91-68 beatdown of the USF Dons, who have started off the season a rocky 1-9 in the second year under Jennifer Azzi’s tutelage.
“Great balance in our rebounding, great balance in our scoring, great balance in our minutes and that’s how we like to play,” Butler said of the Gators’ effort at San Francisco, after falling short against Rutgers last Friday.
“We knew that we didn’t play tough enough to beat them (Rutgers), so toughness was definitely and emphasis going into this ballgame and this was also our first true road test,” Butler said. “That was a neutral site. We’ve had a few neutral site ballgames and we really wanted to make a statement about the type of team that we can be on the road.”
And a statement was made, indeed.
Florida posted a season-high in points with 91, led by junior Jennifer George’s career-high 24-point performance.
“Jennifer has just got a really tough job because we rarely let her off the block and she handles that challenge, I think, with the right resilience and the right spirit that it takes because she takes a pounding,” Butler said. “I thought she really exhibited a lot of toughness particularly on the offensive end, but we’ve got to establish the paint as we move forward. Obviously our next opponent is Pacific, but all of these ballgames are preparing us for our SEC play. You’ve got to be able to win the paint to beat good teams so we’re really putting a lot of emphasis in trying to do that every night.”
George also added 11 rebounds, seven on the offensive glass. Her seven offensive boards was more than the entire Dons team could muster in the contest. USF finished with six total offensive rebounds and lost the battle of the boards 56-30, collectively. This glass crashing effort is something that Butler keys on, along with winning the paint night in and night out, another category in which Florida excelled on Wednesday.
The Gators put up hustle stats anyone would be envious of – outscoring USF 44-20 in the paint, chipping in 26 points off of 18 Dons turnovers and those offensive rebounds led to a 23-4 advantage in second chance scoring.
“I think it’s really important to get second chances, just to get another crack at scoring so I think you’ve just got to keep working on that second effort and trying to get the ball,” George said with a smile after her banner night. And of her offensive prowess, she shrugged it off as a team effort. “I just think I just got a lot of good passes from my guards. They put me in the easy position to score, something that really helped,” she said.
The team effort is as alive off the court as it is on, something that George thinks makes this year all the more special and exciting for the Gators. She credits “chemistry” and a summer of pickup basketball for part of the change in this Florida team from last season’s 20-15 year. And George expects to reap the rewards of success looking ahead to conference play.
“I just think we just want to be playing really well in January. That’s what every team wants to be doing and I think we have a good chance to take the SEC by storm this year,” George said. “I definitely think we will be overlooked, but I’m fine with that. I like taking people by surprise so that’s fine with us.”
Butler isn’t so sure if the Gators are overlooked or even if she should care if that is the case.
“I don’t know if we’re overlooked or not. That’s not anything that’s really new for us. It’s not also new for people to be talking about Vanderbilt and Tennessee,” Butler said of her conference counterparts that net the news stories. “They’re great programs, it’s a great league and that’s what makes our league so tough. Tennessee gets a lot of talk, there’s a lot of talk about Georgia, there’s a lot of talk about Vanderbilt, there’s a lot of talk about Kentucky.
“But then you’ve got teams like Arkansas, you’ve got teams like Florida, teams like Mississippi State. You’ve got tough teams like Auburn that can beat anybody on any night and that’s what makes our league great. We’ll worry about if we need to play with a chip on our shoulder or not when we hit January.”
So for now, no chip is needed, just more statements on the road to be made. Watch out Pacific. Chomp chomp.