The 2015-16 Florida women's basketball season didn't get off to a good start late last week, as the Gators fell into a 20-point hole, rallied, and faded late in a 97-91 loss in their season opener at Temple.
Monday night brought their home opener in Gainesville, against No. 6 Florida State, which made the Elite Eight in 2015 and is riding as high under Sue Semrau as the Seminoles ever have. And it brought another substantial deficit, this one a 15-point disadvantage established just 63 seconds into the second quarter1. With 6:49 to go in the second period, it was still a 15-point lead, at 26-11.
Then the Gators came back — all the way back.
Florida rallied to within nine points at halftime, sliced another three points off the lead in the third quarter, then exploded for a 31-point fourth quarter, outscoring the 'Noles by 16, to take a stunning 82-72 upset victory.
Ronni Williams, the highest-ranked recruit to ever choose the Gators when she came to Florida in 2013, had maybe her best game as a Gator, recording a 21-point, 10-rebound double-double and holding her own against a notoriously rugged FSU frontcourt, which pulled down an absurd 29 offensive rebounds, and scored as many second-chance points.
And she wasn't alone. Freshman Eleanna Christinaki — who is from Greece, believe it or not — sparked Florida's backcourt with 13 points (nine on three triples), seven assists, and four steals. Junior college transfer Simone Westbrook chipped in 13 points of her own. Sophomore Dyandria Anderson's nine points came in a personal 9-0 run that was part of the larger 23-6 run spanning the end of the third and most of the fourth quarter that gave the Gators the lead for good.
What the Gators claimed by holding that lead was a victory that might be the best outside of SEC play in program history.
Certainly, it's the team's best non-conference win under Amanda Butler.
Prior to Monday, Florida was a respectably 4-5 in non-conference regular-season games against teams ranked in at least one national poll under Butler. But two of those four wins were against ranked Florida State teams, and three of the four came in Florida's 2008-09 season, when Florida tied a program record with 24 wins. Since that year, the Gators had been 1-4 against ranked non-conference teams, and 1-5 against Florida State.
Florida had also struggled to break through against Florida State under Butler, compiling a 2-6 record against Semrau's team in her first eight seasons. And FSU was only one of two opponents to play Florida under Butler more than five times and concede fewer than three wins — with the other being mighty Tennessee.
Instead of continuing those trends, Butler's program took down the state's current gold standard, and got Florida's first win over a top-10 team outside of SEC play since December 2000, when a Gators squad that went to the second round of the NCAA Tournament topped Rutgers, 66-58. That 2000-01 team also had one of the other two such wins over a top-10 non-SEC team in Florida history, an upset of No. 9/No. 11 Penn State; the 1997-98 team that followed an Elite Eight appearance in 1996-97 with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen earned the first when it walloped No. 5 North Carolina by 20 points.
Those two teams also had another thing in common: Their own top-25 rankings. Florida was No. 9 when it downed North Carolina, and vaulted to No. 5 — still the best ranking in program history — after beating the Heels. The Gators vaulted into the top 25 after beating Penn State in 2000, then into the top 15 after beating Rutgers. (It's possible that this team will make a similar leap, but it also wasn't undefeated at the time of this first upset like those two were.)
North Carolina's No. 5 ranking was the only higher one than FSU's No. 62 for a Florida non-conference victim, but this is quite clearly a more unlikely and more important win for this program than a win over a top-10 team was for a squad then considered a top-10 team in its own right.
To put this in a context Florida assistant Shimmy Gray-Miller might appreciate: This win is "Public Service Announcement" and that one was more like "Takeover" — and people don't lose their minds for "Takeover" at Jay Z shows.
And if the Gators can beat Florida State? They might be able to beat just about any team on their schedule. Only No. 2 South Carolina and No. 4 Tennessee were ranked ahead of the 'Noles in this week's AP poll, and Florida has to travel to Columbia and Knoxville to play those teams, so those still loom as likely losses in SEC play. But top-15 teams Mississippi State, Texas A&M, and Kentucky all come to Gainesville, where Florida has played dramatically better than on the road under Butler3.
And the win should give this program some much-needed confidence. After a tumultuous offseason that produced three transfers, senior Jaterra Bonds stepped up to lead the short-handed Gators to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2013-14. Without Bonds to lead last year, though, the Gators posted a losing record in 2014-15.
That was a first under Butler — but she still received a puzzling contract extension in March. She made staff changes, though, swapping out long-time assistants Angela Crosby and David Lowery for Bill Ferrara and Gray-Miller, and everything pointed to 2015-16 as a make-or-break year for her program.
When the Gators fell at Temple, I thought the scale was tipping towards break. Beating an excellent Florida State team at home, though, means the potential exists for Florida to be good enough to make an NCAA Tournament run, and swings the pendulum's momentum back towards a season that makes Florida's future clearer.
That future isn't as obviously rosy as it was in 2013, and Butler can be fairly considered embattled until which point her team proves Monday night wasn't a fluke. But Florida didn't even have a win like this (in non-conference play, anyway) to argue about under Butler before just now, and that shouldn't be lost on anyone.
Florida's hashtagged mantra for this season is #WantMore. On Monday night, the Gators did, and came back to beat one of the nation's best teams because of it.
Because of that win, I can believe this team can go get others, too.
Women's college basketball is playing four 10-minute quarters in the 2015-16 season to "enhance the flow of the game." I have no idea if that's going to work, but I think I like four 10-minute quarters better for the sake of the basketball than I do two 20-minute halves.
Florida referred to No. 7 Florida State consistently in publications and graphics for the game, but the 'Noles moved past Ohio State to No. 6 in Monday's AP Top 25, released prior to tipoff, which is why I'm using that No. 6 ranking.
Florida is now 95-38 in the O'Dome under Butler, but just 59-75 at all other venues.