Mark Borders didn't begin his collegiate career at Tampa. He transferred from Division I Murray State after a coaching change his freshman year.
In his time there the two-time All-Sunshine State Conference selection and university's single-season and career assists leader has endeared himself to students and faculty alike. On the verge of what could be his final appearance in a Spartans uniform, he wants to win the SSC Tournament for what he calls his family.
"From the teachers, to the coaches, the trainers and the workers around campus, I love these people," said Borders, who Tuesday was named conference player of the year. "This place has been my home for the last three years, and now I feel like I did when I first left home to go to college. A part of you doesn't want to go, but you know you have to take that next step."
Last month Borders was named one of 15 finalists for the Bob Cousy Award, presented annually to the nation's top point guard. But throughout his career, he has consistently distanced himself from individual honors. He is taking a win-at-all-costs approach into Thursday's first-round matchup against Eckerd (20-7, 10-6).
With five other seniors and talented sophomores Chris Evans and Jeremy Black occupying the paint, the Spartans (19-8, 10-6) have a chance to accomplish Borders' goal. The keys are defense and mental toughness.
Relying on the league's stingiest defense (62.3 ppg), Tampa defeated every SSC team in the regular season except Lynn, including back-to-back victories against Rollins and Nova Southeastern, the No. 1 and 2 seeds in the tournament. But there were moments when the Spartans lacked focus, as in a 27-point blowout at Nova Southeastern and a five-point defeat to 7-20 Florida Tech, which they hadn't lost to since 1998.
"We had some mental lapses at times this year," Borders said. "Times when we didn't play with a sense of urgency and lacked our typical intensity."
He promises that will not be the case come tournament time despite facing the fifth-seeded Tritons, a team UT swept this season.
It's a "go hard or go home" mentality for the student-athlete who found a home at UT, one he claims shaped him into the man he is today.
"Mark was a different player when he first arrived here; he wasn't used to working hard," coach Richard Schmidt said. "But that changed, and he became the kind of player a coach loves to have, one who listens, works hard and doesn't make excuses when things don't go his way. He's developed into a really wonderful person besides being a great player, and we'll miss him tremendously."