Thursday night in Knoxville, Tennessee, was what athletic director Jeremy Foley and head coach Amanda Butler hope is the culmination of a strong belief the former had that the latter could turn around the Florida Gators women’s basketball program despite not showing much proof that such a change in fortunes was on the horizon.
It was unfortunate that neither was there to see it.
Foley, who selectively travels to games and does so even more rarely for certain sports, was likely at home in Gainesville, Florida, on Thursday. Butler was not with her team as it completed a 74-66 upset victory over the No. 11 Tennessee Lady Vols. She was unfortunately forced to be away form the team due to a sudden family issue.
What Foley and Butler missed was Florida rallying from a nine-point first quarter deficit to outscore Tennessee 58-41 over the duration of the contest on the way to just the Gators’ fourth win ever over the Lady Vols. (Florida was 1-21 all-time in Knoxville and just 3-48 against Tennessee entering Thursday.) But UF’s fastbreak offense (20 points) kept UT on its heels and helped the visitors overcome a significant disadvantage on the boards (54-46).
The historic victory, which came four days after Florida saw its surprising 12-game winning streak snapped at the hands of No. 8 Mississippi State in Gainesville, also gave a lot of credibility to Foley’s decision to keep Butler around for 2015-16 despite the former Gators guard (1990-94) winning just 57.7 percent of her games through eight seasons and never taking her team past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The assumption was that Foley, who was forced to replace two of the best coaches in the history of Florida athletics in Billy Donovan (men’s basketball) and Rhonda Faehn (gymnastics) – plus hire the right coach to lead the Gators’ prestigious football program – all in one offseason, decided to take the easy way out and hold off a decision on the women’s basketball team for a year.
And perhaps that’s what happened.
It was certainly a surprise when Foley not only announced he was retaining Butler but provided her with a two-year extension in March 2015.
“Clearly the results of last season were not what anyone, including Coach Butler, had hoped. That said, I continue to strongly feel that Amanda is the right person to get Florida women’s basketball to be a contender in this league and nationally,” he said at the time. “She’s a Gator and will keep working tirelessly to elevate this program.”
This all came not only after Florida women’s basketball struggled to be successful on the court but also dealt with a rash of transfers while seeing other players forced off the program due to behavioral issues. Butler had been able to haul in some elite recruits despite leading a team without a history of national success, but the roster was still depleated and the questions about her coaching and leadership were certainly legitimate.
Butler’s response was to clean house, swapping eight-year veteran assistant David Lowery and third-year assistant Angela Crosby for Bill Ferrara and Shimmy Gray-Miller (Murriel Page remained on staff for her sixth season).
The Gators opened 2015-16 looking like not much had changed, falling 97-91 to Temple on the road in Philadelphia. Then Florida shocked rival Florida State, ranked No. 6/7 at the time, 82-72 in Gainesville and took off on its winning streak. UF beat Colorado by 22, Wisconsin by 16 and NC State by seven before falling to No. 8 Mississippi State.
Without their coach and facing tremendous adversity, the Gators somehow prevailed Thursday night and look to be in the process of writing a new chapter for women’s basketball at the school. UF matched its 2014-15 win total through just 15 games and will likely be a top-25 team next week.
But there’s still a long way to go. Florida has the rest of its SEC slate to play, and it’s still never won a league title. The Gators haven’t advanced past the second round of the NCAA Tournament since 1997-98.
Will Florida get it done this season under Butler? Time will certainly tell, but perhaps Foley and Butler now deserve the benefit of the doubt, and maybe the Gators are closer to becoming relevant than anyone initially believed.