Rocky road to the top: Reeling Florida women's basketball faces latest Tennessee test

Randy Sartin-US PRESSWIRE

Florida's women's basketball team looked to be turning a corner as recently as 10 days ago. Now, they're staring down their third straight loss.

When last we checked in on Florida's women's basketball team, just two weeks ago, the Gators looked to have come around a corner and positioned themselves nicely for NCAA Tournament contention. They had knocked off Kentucky in Lexington for one of the best wins of Amanda Butler's tenure as head coach, and they would fend off a ranked Arkansas team on that Thursday night for their first wins over ranked teams in consecutive games since February 2004.

Things have changed for the worse since then.

First, Florida failed to continue its momentum on the road against LSU three days after its win over the Razorbacks, falling 82-68. The Gators never led in that game, falling behind 14-2 early, and never got closer to the Tigers in the second half than a seven-point deficit. Jaterra Bonds struggled, making just two of 11 shots, and Florida squandered fine efforts from Cassie Peoples (22 points) and Carlie Needles (17 points with five threes), who stepped up in second-leading scorer Christin Mercer's absence.

In a vacuum, that loss was no big deal: LSU was and is a top-15 team, and Florida was playing on the road with just seven players. The Gators had been on a nine-game winning streak, but adding a third straight win over a ranked team and a second straight road win against a top-15 team was a Herculean task.

But then Mercer was suspended very quietly on the Monday following that loss, and news broke on January 14 that Mercer had been arrested over the weekend on charges of conspiracy to commit robbery in connection to a May 2013 home invasion.

While Only Gators' Adam Silverstein reports that Mercer is likely to take a plea deal resulting in no jail time, her arrest left the Gators shorthanded against LSU — and left them even worse off on Sunday against Georgia. Without Mercer, Florida struggled to score again, making just 24 of 60 shots, and the Gators got throttled on the boards, giving up 18 offense rebounds to the Bulldogs and taking down just eight of their own in a 68-62 loss.

Georgia, too, is a team at or above Florida's level — but it's hard to believe that a six-point home loss without Mercer, who averages just over 11 points per game, wouldn't have gone differently with her in the lineup.

And Thursday night, while Florida's men's basketball team looks to continue its winning ways at Alabama, the women's team will be facing the toughest test the SEC offers: A game at mighty Tennessee (6:30 p.m., SportSouth/ESPN3).

Florida hasn't been very competitive in Knoxville of late (see sidebar), but Tennessee isn't quite what it used to be this year. The Lady Vols have four losses, and are actually tied with the Gators at 3-2 in the SEC, having dropped games to LSU and Vanderbilt. The Lady Vols are only 4-4 over their last eight games, and lost to Notre Dame by an 86-70 count at home (that Rocky Top Talk all but called) in their last outing; it was Tennessee's worst home loss since the 1995-96 season.

But Tennessee, even removed from its peak, is still a program that steps out of conference to play teams like Stanford and Notre Dame, and loses at Maples Pavilion by single digits, and builds the biggest lead anyone's had on Notre Dame this year before squandering it. In all probability, the Lady Vols will emerge from tonight's game with another win over Florida at home.

Playing at Tennessee, for the Gators, is as much about playing the expectations game as it is playing basketball. Though Kentucky and other teams look like the class of the SEC this year, Tennessee is and will be the conference's measuring stick, and the Gators simply haven't measured up.

So, for Florida, this game is about competing and fighting with a better team in a hostile environment, and proving that the adversity of losing Mercer and losing two games in a row isn't going to sink what looked very recently like a season brimming with potential. Maybe the Gators lead for a while; maybe they make it close at the end; maybe they come out flat and get blown out before a crowd that will be revved up for one of the SEC's seemingly dozens of "We Back Pat" games honoring legendary UT coach Pat Summitt; maybe they actually pull off a shocking upset.

For a team in search of momentum, this is a rigorous test, but also a nice opportunity. It's up to the Gators, depleted though they are, to seize it.

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