January 10, 2013 1:27:52 AM
Amanda Butler isn't into style points.
Nearly three years ago, Butler and the University of Florida women's basketball team escaped Starkville with a 55-52 victory against Mississippi State University. Suffice to say the game wasn't a blueprint for execution, but it showcased the mentality Butler wanted to be the Gators' calling card.
"We strive for ugliness," Butler said after the victory. "It has taken us to this point in the season to figure out how we have to play and how we have to try to make other teams play for us to be successful. It has to be a game that is on the floor. It can't be a game that is up around the rim or be pretty or finesse or highlight reel. It is the stuff where you go, 'Oh, oh, gosh, oh,' but that's how we're good."
Things have changed in Gainesville, Fla., from an "ugly" brand of basketball that still helped Florida advance to the postseason with an appearance in the Women's National Invitation Tournament. In 2010-11, Florida finished 20-15 and made a return trip to the WNIT. Last season, Florida went 20-13, upset Ohio State University in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and then lost to eventual national champion Baylor University in the second round.
This season, Florida (2-4, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) is on track to getting back to the NCAA tournament. After playing No. 6 University of Kentucky tough in its SEC opener last Thursday, Florida rallied to beat LSU 77-72 Sunday. Florida will try to make it two in a row at 7 tonight when it takes on MSU (8-7, 0-2) at Humphrey Coliseum.
The Gators' first two SEC games this season were a far cry from the "ugliness" Butler reflected on in 2010, but that doesn't mean the philosophy has changed.
"We really want to win with toughness," Butler said. "That is what we feel like has been the root of our success, and sometimes that toughness looks ugly. I think you're occasionally going to play some ball that is not highlight film worthy, but if you come out with a win, your kids don't care. We have a blue-collar approach to how we play."
Florida may have to make the game ugly if Jennifer George, the team's only senior, isn't able to play. The team's leading scorer (14.6 points) and rebounder (9.3) suffered a shoulder injury with 5 minutes, 6 seconds left to go in the LSU game. If George can't go, Florida will be down to eight players. Despite possibly being short-handed, Butler likes the makeup of her team. She said the Gators have matured through the non-conference season and will continue to find ways to improve because they work "exceptionally hard." In a way, Florida could be viewed as a more experienced version of MSU. Even with George the only senior, Butler has had time to instill her style of play and her attitude. With junior guard Jaterra Bonds (11.3 ppg.) helping to lead the way, Butler feels the program has built on that "ugly" mind-set and wears its brand of basketball with honor.
"I think you have to recruit tough kids," Butler said. "I don't think you can completely change young ladies and their way of operating. ... One of the things we are constantly dwelling on are the factors we can control in our league. There are nights we're not going to be the tallest, we're not going to be the more athletic team, we're not going to be the more experienced team. Every night there are going to be factors opponents are going to use that are going to surprise to you. There is such great talent and coaching in this league, but we are always going to control how tough we play."
Butler sees first-year MSU coach Vic Schaefer trying to get his team to play a similar way.
"I think they play very tough basketball," Butler said. "I think they play really, really hard and they have great pieces to the puzzle. I think Vic has done a fantastic job coming in and implementing his way of doing things. It is obvious to see on film the confidence they're playing with."
Schaefer still wants more from his team, though. After a disappointing 92-41 loss to Vanderbilt University in its SEC opener last Thursday, MSU raised its level in a 60-46 loss to then-No. 18 University of South Carolina. Even with post players Martha Alwal and Carnecia Williams saddled with foul problems, MSU hung tough and delivered signs of progress. One was freshman Sherise Williams taking two charges, something that enthused Schaefer.
"Sherise Williams has a great frame and a SEC body," Schaefer said of the 6-foot-1 forward from St. Louis. "She has tremendous athleticism and loves to block shots. ... It has taken us three or four months to get the point across that (taking a charge) is a bigger play than a blocked shot. She is learning to use her frame and is learning (to think to herself) I have a pretty nice frame and it doesn't hurt so much if we step in front of that freight train coming down the lane."
Schaefer said teaching points like those have taken time with an inexperienced lineup. He admitted he and his assistant coaches haven't made as much progress as they would have liked instilling toughness into this season's team. He tried to emphasize the importance of toughness at a practice this week when he told his players they can't survive in the SEC without being physical, tough, and aggressive.
"If you don't have all three qualities, you're going to die on the vine," Schaefer said. "There is no way to survive."
Schaefer said his players understood that message. He also said in the same conversation that every time he gets excited about something a player or his team does that something forces everything back to ground zero. He said that inconsistency also is typical of young teams, and that it hasn't wavered his resolve or the temerity of his coaching staff.
"It's an on-going process with this group," Schaefer said. "We're going to continue to work with the youth and inexperience of this team."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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