The University of Tampa women's basketball team heads into tonight's Sunshine State Conference game at home against Florida Tech with an opportunity to rewrite school history.
The Spartans (12-2, 3-0) won their ninth in a row Saturday at Barry and would break the school record for consecutive victories if they beat the Panthers (11-3, 3-0). UT aims for its 10th straight win at the Bob Martinez Sports Center, which also would be a record. This season's team tied the home wins mark set in 1993-94 and matched in 2000-01.
Plus, the winner will be alone in first in the SSC as the league's lone unbeaten, so the stakes are that much higher.
"We're pleased with the start we're off to, not just in the league but this entire season," UT coach Tom Jessee said. "We had a tough rebuilding year last year and I think we're in phase two right now. There are still a lot of places to improve on."
Despite the good start, Jessee hesitates to bestow too many compliments on his team yet. In his third season, he has seen both sides of the conference standings, with a school-record 23 victories and a share of the SSC title in his debut then a fall to a 10-18 overall mark last season.
The 2002-03 SSC Coach of the Year now must keep his young team, which has just one senior and typically starts at least two freshmen, on an emotional even keel.
"I don't think we can get overconfident," Jessee said. "The best thing is that the returning players, who went through a tough season last year, can look at the schedule every day and probably see an opponent who pounded on us. They have payback on their minds."
Payback was not what defending conference champion Rollins had in mind when the Spartans beat it by five on Jan. 5. The Tars, who went undefeated (14-0) through their SSC schedule last season en route to an NCAA South Region Final appearance, were one of those teams who pounded on Tampa last year, winning twice by double digits including a 42-point drubbing.
"I told the girls when we started this year, we'd be a team, not an I," Jessee said. "As a coach it's very satisfying that they bought into that wholeheartedly. But still we continue to move forward each day."
MEN'S BASKETBALL: UT has a good opportunity to move up the standings in what looks to be a wide-open conference. Five teams, including UT, have at least 10 wins and are separated by two games.
The Spartans defeated two-time defending SSC champ and preseason favorite Rollins last week. Tampa (10-4, 1-2) faces Florida Tech then heads across Interstate 4 on Jan. 19 to take on long time SSC rival Florida Southern.
Freshman Chris Evans has been a welcome addition, leading the team in scoring five times this season and cracking the SSC's top 10 in rebounding at No. 3 with 8.4 per game. Evans has six consecutive double-digit scoring games.
BASEBALL: The Spartans began practice Monday but before things get too intense, they will give fans and alumni a chance to swing at a much smaller ball. On Jan. 22 the team hosts the 16th Annual Spartan Baseball Golf Classic in honor of Rene Martinez Sr., late father of UT alumnus Tino Martinez.
The four man scramble will be at The Eagles Golf Course in Odessa. Registration fee is $150 per person. In years past the tournament has been visited by major leaguers like Martinez and Fred McGriff.
For more information contact UT coach Joe Urso at 253-6240, ext. 3488.
_ DAVID NORRIE, Times correspondent