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Published: Tuesday, 3/20/2012

Gators in familiar role against Baylor

BY JOHN WAGNER
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Florida coach Amanda Butler says her team is used to being the underdog. Florida coach Amanda Butler says her team is used to being the underdog.
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BOWLING GREEN -- The word "underdog" isn't often attached to teams from the University of Florida.

The Gators' football team won BCS titles in 2006 and 2008, while the Florida men's basketball team won back-to-back titles in 2005-06 and 2006-07.

But the women's basketball team doesn't enjoy that luxury, since the Southeastern Conference is filled with teams such as Tennessee, which has won eight national titles, as well as six other schools that have reached the NCAA tournament's Final Four at some point.

So the Florida women's team has a little experience as "David" facing a "Goliath" such as Baylor, the Gators' opponent in the NCAA tournament second-round contest to be played at the Stroh Center Tuesday at 7 p.m.

"Our league is so good, and it has been dominated by the same teams for so long, I don't think we go into many matchups with people writing about what Florida is going to do," Gators coach Amanda Butler said. "We generally read the headlines about our competitors.

"It's not a new role for us. But do our kids enjoy it? I don't think our kids focus on it. They take great pride in being Gators, and if someone overlooks us or discounts us, that's a little extra fuel for our kids."

How dominant has Baylor been this season? The Bears are the only undefeated Division I college basketball team, men or women. And their 35-0 record has been crafted by an average margin of 27.7 points per game; Baylor has won its nine games against nationally ranked schools by an average margin of 17.3 points per contest.

Baylor junior Destiny Williams said the Bears know they will get an opponent's best game every time they take the floor.

"We want everybody's best shot," she said. "That will help us become a better team. That helps us work on the things we need to work on.

"Being [ranked] No. 1 doesn't really mean anything. It's an honor, and we'll take it. We're blessed by the wins and the accolades, but we're out on a bigger mission."

So is Florida, which punched its ticket to the second round with a 70-65 victory over Ohio State Sunday. The Gators, who are 20-12, had a 2-7 record against nationally ranked teams before topping the Buckeyes. Florida was not ranked at the end of the regular season.

"Since we've been here, I feel we've been the underdogs," sophomore Jaterra Bonds said. "I feel that no one respects us, so we have to go out there and take the respect."

Senior teammate Azania Stewart agreed, adding, "Everyone was talking about Ohio State, and no one gave us any credit for what we had done. It's time to talk about Florida, and what they've done -- and what they're going to do."

Baylor coach Kim Mulkey watched parts of Florida's win over OSU Saturday, and her impression was that the Gators played with a sense of urgency.

"What I mean by that is they played extremely hard on both ends of the floor," Mulkey said. "I thought they played with a purpose. Whether they felt they should have been seeded higher or they felt they shouldn't have been mentioned as one of the last four [team] in [the tournament], I don't know.

"But I thought their basketball team, from the beginning of the game until the final horn sounded, played with a sense of urgency."

One glimmer of hope for the Gators is that Baylor has not played many close games this season, with no victories by fewer than five points. Florida has played in 14 games decided by six points or less but has just a 4-10 record in those contests.

"If we do what we're supposed to do for the majority of the game, we can make it a one-possession ball game down the stretch," Butler said. "We've certainly been there a lot, and we have learned some very valuable lessons.

"We've started to cash in on some of those after coming up short earlier in the year. We gained some confidence, especially in games like [Sunday's] game against Ohio State."

Contact John Wagner at: jwagner@theblade,com, 419-724-6481 or on Twitter @jwagnerblade.



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