GAINESVILLE — Amanda Butler shook hands with the woman she grew up admiring then immediately headed across the O'Connell Center basketball court to do the Gator chomp with some of the 8,060 fans who turned out for Florida's 66-57 victory over Tennessee on Sunday.
The Gators were actually ranked ahead of the Vols and had the better record and the more experienced team. When you lose the starting five from a two-time national champion, even legendary coach Pat Summitt has to rebuild.
But Sunday wasn't about what the Vols don't have. For Butler, in her second season with the Gators, it was about what Florida is beginning to become once again.
A legitimate women's basketball program.
The Gators (22-2, 8-1 SEC) moved up to No. 9 in the AP poll Monday, their first trip into the nation's Top 10 since Feb. 12, 2001 — coincidentally at No. 9 with the same number of wins.
They have suspected they belonged most of the season. But Tennessee helped prove it. Because even now, the Vols are the measuring stick by which women's programs, particularly in the SEC, are judged.
"There's no question Tennessee does set the standard, and I think that's because of all the things that have transpired to this point," Butler said. "The 1,000th win (for Summitt) and that sort of thing signifies a lot of consistency. Freshmen, sophomores, seniors, whatever they have, you always know that Tennessee is going to be a contender to win our league and a contender to win the national championship. That's just how it is in women's basketball. Pat Summitt deserves all the credit for that."
And Butler, 36, deserves credit for what's happening with the Gators right now. A former four-year starting guard who played under UF coach Carol Ross, Butler has turned the Gators around in remarkably short fashion.
How quickly? In former coach Carolyn Peck's final season two years ago, the Gators were 9-22, 7-12 in the SEC. Last season under Butler, the Gators were 19-14, 6-8 SEC, and made it to the WNIT. According to the players, she has brought an attitude to the program that once defined her as a player: an overachiever with tremendous toughness. Ross has called her "the toughest player I ever coached."
"It's rubbing off on everybody," senior F Marshae Dotson said. "She challenges us every day in practice. If we're not doing well, she'll let us know. She's pushing us. She'll say, 'If it was me, I'd get out there and get it done for you.' So we're kind of walking in her shoes at the same time, because her swagger is ridiculously crazy. But she won't let us get the big head just because of how the season is going now."
Summitt was quick to praise the Gators on Sunday.
"Give credit where credit is due," she said. "They are playing really well together. They've got a veteran group that understands a commitment to defense, the rebounding, and they are sharing the basketball. … I think they've got one of the best man defenses, and zone, too."
When it was all over and the celebration had died down, Butler wanted to make sure her players had the chance to celebrate. After all, it was only the Gators' third win over the Vols in 40 attempts. But Monday, the focus was back on No. 24 Vanderbilt, the next opponent.
And give Butler credit. She didn't try to act as if beating Tennessee were no big deal, but she made sure to remind everyone the season didn't end. She acknowledged that part of the second-largest O'Dome crowd probably came to see Summitt and the Vols but hopes they'll come back to see her Gators. And she was quick to deflect attention.
"It is something to be excited about," Butler said. "Oh, my gosh, I grew up in Tennessee (Mount Juliet). Are you kidding me? I went to Pat Summitt basketball camp when I was 15 years old. That's what we did. But it's more about our team. … It's about what it makes the win-loss column look like. At the end of the day, that's what really matters."
Brooks honored: For her outstanding performance Sunday, which included a game-high 29 points (all 12 in a 12-0 run down the stretch), UF senior G Sha Brooks on Monday was named the SEC player of the week. It was her third time being honored this season.
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.