Anyone who had paid attention to Florida's women's basketball team, especially in the Amanda Butler era, had seen the show the Gators put on Sunday before, at least when news that that Gators were hanging with No. 6 Kentucky on the road filtered its way to the Gator Nation via Twitter.
But the Gators wrote a new ending to their story on Sunday, upending Kentucky, 83-73 — and they now stand ready to begin a new chapter against the SEC.
Florida led down the stretch in Lexington, then pulled away, something that simply hasn't happened for the Gators against the meat of the SEC schedule. The stat that got rolled out a lot in the wake of the win was "Florida's first win against a top-10 team since 2006," sometimes with the note that it came against a No. 2 LSU team in overtime at home, but never with the caveat that Butler hadn't even arrived at Florida then. Since she was hired before the 2006-07 season, Florida's gone 1-17 against teams ranked in the top 10 of at least one poll, and the losses have frequently been agonizing: Tennessee survived in overtime at the O'Dome last year; Kentucky swept the season series with Florida by three and five points in 2011-12; Tennessee got a two-point win in Gainesville in 2009-10, and Florida State got a four-point win.
Florida's never quite been a very good team since Butler's arrival to clean up the mess left by Carolyn Peck, but part of that has been the program's inability to get a landmark win and make a statement. Beating Kentucky, a team that made it to the Elite Eight in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, on the road? That counts.
Kentucky, for my money, is the program best poised to take over the SEC should Tennessee slip during Holly Warlick's attempts to live up to the legend Pat Summitt created. Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell is regarded as one of the game's brightest young stars (he's 43), and the Wildcats have won 25 games in each of the last four years, finishing second, second, first, and second in the SEC. And Kentucky is, well, Kentucky, basketball-mad and full-throated in its support of its women's team.
Florida had been 1-7 against Kentucky under Butler, the lone win coming at home in January 2009, but that 2-7 mark is a lot better than 1-7, even if Kentucky's sort of trying to find itself at the moment, because that same team, with a healthier DeNesha Stallworth, knocked off Louisville and Baylor away from home earlier this year, and hung with Duke in a big game at Rupp. Kentucky's for real this year, and Florida just proved that it might be for real in its own way.
That would put the Gators ahead of schedule after a 2012-13 season that looked like it, too, featured an ahead-of-schedule squad. Sydney Moss was fantastic for the Gators last year, especially late, as they recovered from an injury to senior leader Jennifer George to charge deep into the Women's NIT. But Moss and Chandler Cooper both decided to transfer after the season, with Moss's transfer eventually proving contentious; though Butler and Florida eventually lifted transfer restrictions to every school other than Kentucky, the story still made national news, permitting pundits to take potshots at Butler as yet another coach without players' best interests in mind.
This left Florida with just 10 scholarship players entering 2013-14, and without Moss, who projected to be one of the better players in program history if she had stuck around. So the team adopted an "us against the world" mentality, took to calling itself the "Perfect 10," and charged into a season that suddenly looked like a rebuild with no expectations but their own.
They're exceeding them.
Florida took decent losses to Virginia Tech and Florida State and a bad loss to Illinois State in its non-conference schedule, but went undefeated in December, and is now on an eight-game winning streak. Senior Jaterra Bonds has stepped up as Florida's leader: She leads the Gators in scoring (16.8 points per game) and assists (4.4 per game), and is the reigning SEC and national player of the week after her 23-point, six-rebound game against the 'Cats. And Florida's forged a surprisingly good offense out of the cremains of its 2012-13 roster, ranking 51st nationally in points per possession and scoring better than 80 points per game by keeping the pace up.
They will need to be good on offense tonight against Arkansas, in a game that tips at 7 p.m. in the O'Connell Center, and one you should go to. The Razorbacks are the SEC's gold standard for defense, allowing a miserly 0.65 points per possession; Connecticut, far and away the class of this season in women's basketball, is right around that same number. Florida's definitely the underdog again.
But the Gators just showed that they can stage an upset. And, whether it's against Arkansas or one of the five other ranked SEC teams, that skill and their awareness of it will come in handy throughout the SEC schedule, as the Gators attempt to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years.
Florida is turning things around after falling off, and if Butler and the Perfect 10 can maintain their momentum tonight and through March, it may be turning into a program that can compete annually in the SEC, just about the only thing the entire Florida athletics program portfolio has lacked under Jeremy Foley.
One of the most critical things for this program, though, is fan support. Florida's attendance lags behind much of the rest of the SEC, and always has, but the Gators finally have a good, fun, scrappy team that has shown it can do more than come close to winning big games. There's literally never been a more promising moment for Florida women's basketball under Butler than the "moment" that the last four days have afforded.
And, as such, there's no really good excuse for fans and students not to turn out tonight. Students get in free. Tickets for the general public start at $4, and there are no bad seats in the O'Dome. There's a sock giveaway. It's not as cold as it was earlier this week. It's the first week of classes, so there's no way in hell students are actually swamped with homework.
Go to the O'Dome tonight, Gators, and try cheering for this women's basketball team like you would for any other really good Florida squad. If you don't like it, fine, whatever: At least you went.
If you do like it, though, there nothing stopping you from going back, and no other group of Gators that wants or needs your support more.