Carol Ross' first thought was to be insulted.
Her Florida team had finished last season with a No. 16 ranking, the highest in school history. Eight months later, the Gators had all five starters back, and they dropped in the preseason poll, to 21st. Ross figured it would be better to not even be ranked.
Pretty soon, though, Florida wasn't. Losses to Texas, Memphis and Georgetown dropped the Gators to 3-3 and out of the poll. The Gators' vaunted defense gave up 97, 81 and 78 points in the losses.
Ross liked that even less.
So she snapped out of her funk and started talking _ about the zone, the press, the man-to-man. About how if the Gators wanted to mix it up with the best teams in the NCAA Tournament, they had better start mixing it up on defense.
Three months and 21 victories later, that is exactly what they are doing.
Thanks in good part to outstanding defense against some of the best players in the country, No. 7-ranked Florida (24-8), the No. 3 seed in the Mideast Regional, finds itself in the Elite Eight. The Gators, who never had advanced past the second round of the NCAA Tournament, face No. 2-ranked and top-seeded Old Dominion (32-1) at 7 tonight for a chance to reach the Final Four in Cincinnati.
Not only has Florida held opponents to fewer than 70 points in all but four games since going 3-3, the Gators hardly have been tested in the tournament. Aggressive, creative defense has helped them gain almost frighteningly easy victories over Florida International, Southern Cal and No. 5-ranked Louisiana Tech.
"These players have prepared very hard all year long," Ross said. "The things that got us in (to the tournament) are defense and rebounding, and the things that have kept us playing are defense and rebounding."
Defense in particular. The Gators' strategies served them well against Southeastern Conference opponents, but how they would fare against unfamiliar teams in post-season play was a mystery. Florida never had been known for tournament success, going 2-4 over four years in NCAA play.
Beating FIU 92-68 in Round 1 was a relief but hardly a surprise. But against Southern Cal in the second round, first-team All-American DeLisha Milton and her teammates shut down Player of the Year finalist Tina Thompson and anybody else who entered the paint _ what Ross dubbed "Gator territory."
Florida rolled to a 30-point lead, coasted for the final 10 minutes and left the O'Connell Center with a 92-78 victory.
Louisiana Tech, the No. 2 seed in the Mideast, gave Florida a little more trouble Saturday in the regional semifinal _ but not much. Milton and forward/center Murriel Page took care of Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year Alisa Burras on the inside, and UF point guard Mahogany Hudson pestered star freshman point guard Tamicha Jackson.
The Techsters missed their first 15 shots and made only two of their first 22. Florida took a 29-9 lead while Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore diagrammed plays on the sideline to no avail.
After the 71-57 win, Ross admitted to being a bit surprised _ but her players didn't.
"It's our own personal pride," junior guard Dana Smith said. "None of us like to get beat. We've worked hard on defense. We've stressed that all season, and it's paying off now."
Florida can expect a tougher test tonight. Old Dominion has quick guards of its own and rarely commits turnovers. But don't expect the Gators, riding a wave of confidence and emotion, to back down easily.
"We're a veteran team," Ross said. "There's a sense of urgency. They don't want to beat themselves. They want somebody to come in and beat them."