GAINESVILLE — Amanda Butler has known since the beginning of the season that in the brutally competitive world of SEC women's basketball, she wasn't going to field a team that would overwhelm its opponents with talent alone.
Their signature, she told her Florida Gators from the start, would have to be toughness and tenacity. On any given night, somebody might have the better shooting percentage or the rebounding edge — but never walk off the court without the opponent knowing it had been in a battle.
When then-No. 4 Tennessee escaped with a 66-64 victory over Florida on Jan. 14, it was one of the first things legendary coach Pat Summitt gave Butler credit for.
Now 23 games into the season, the Gators have had 12 games decided by fewer than 10 points, and nine of Florida's 10 SEC games have been decided by single digits. Florida's double-overtime home win over Mississippi State on Sunday was more proof for Butler that the Gators are thriving on her philosophy.
"At the beginning of the season, we knew we weren't going to be a team that was just going to roll in and have a lot of 20-point victories; (toughness) was how we were going to have to win games," Butler said. "And I think our team really has embraced that identity.
"It's how they practice. We end practice every single day with (a drill) that says if we get this defensive stop right here, then we win the game. That's the way our games have been. I can't tell you how many timeouts I've been able to go into and say, 'Okay, here's that stop that we practiced for two days.' Our team has really taken a lot of pride in that and generated a lot of confidence from the fact that winning pretty isn't what we do, but we'll take ugly wins as long as the score is in our favor."
Florida (13-10, 6-4) enters a tough stretch this week. The Gators host LSU at 7 p.m. Thursday, then travel to Knoxville for a rematch with the Vols on Sunday.
Dealing with Downey: The men's basketball team will look to further boost its NCAA Tournament resume with its rematch against South Carolina on Wednesday night. And once again Florida has to find a way to deal with Gamecocks superstar G Devan Downey, the SEC's leading scorer. Florida (17-6, 6-3) defeated South Carolina on a last-second shot by Chandler Parsons two weeks ago, but even a game-long double team didn't stop Downey from scoring 36. So the key to stopping him is?
"Go to church and pray," UF coach Billy Donovan jokingly said Monday. " … He gets 30 for a reason against everybody because he's really a problem."
Interestingly, the Gators are looking forward to seeing Downey again.
"Obviously he's a great player, and it's going to be a great challenge for us," senior F Dan Werner said. "Actually, I enjoy playing him; it's fun. Sometimes you can catch yourself watching to see what he's doing because he's so good with the ball.
"I watched the Kentucky game, and a couple of shots he made were just ridiculous. We're all looking forward to playing him."
Anniversary (video) celebration: It has been a decade since Florida's first trip to the NCAA championship game resulted in a runnerup finish in 2000, and UF athletic officials plan to honor that team Saturday evening during the Xavier game.
But because of the number of players from that roster who are now playing in the NBA or overseas, the school will honor the team with a video tribute. Commemorative posters for fans will be distributed.
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.