SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) – Coach Amanda Butler is relishing Florida's chance to play the role of Empire State party-crasher in the first two rounds of the women's NCAA Tournament's Sioux Falls Region.
The Gators take on five-time defending America East champion Albany, which joins with Syracuse and Army to leave Florida as the only participant in Syracuse without a New York zip code.
''That's the plan, definitely,'' Butler said Thursday, knowing fifth-seeded Florida (22-8) faces a distinct home-crowd disadvantage in facing the Great Danes (27-4) on Friday. ''We like a lot of people in the building. And sometimes those folks are cheering for the Gators, and sometimes those folks are Gator-haters. But we're used to both.”
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Unlike the other three teams, Florida took the long way to the first round in making the 1,139-mile trip from Gainesville. It's a long journey similar to the one the Gators made this season in overcoming last year's 13-17 record and preseason projections that ranked them 12th out of 14 SEC schools.
The Great Danes, meanwhile, had to travel just 145 miles from the state capital.
Leaning on a relentless up-tempo style and deep bench, the Gators finished fourth after going 10-6 in conference play – including their fourth win in 52 meetings with Tennessee.
Leading scorer Ronni Williams credited the turnaround to a month-long series of boxing-inspired team workouts last summer. Aside from strength and conditioning training, the players entered the ring to spar during the final session.
''It challenged us mentally, physically and some of us emotionally,'' Williams said. ''It challenged our toughness and got us ready for this season.''
Florida's depth could prove to be the difference. Six Gators average 7.1 or more points, led by Williams at 11.1 and Eleanna Christinaki with 10.4, and four more players average at least five.
Albany set a school record for victories, is 19-1 in its past 20 games and led by the program's first Division I All-American, senior forward Shereesha Richards. She ranks sixth in the country with 23.7 points per game to go with 8.5 rebounds.
Coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson grew emotional when asked if she has considered the prospect that Richards might be playing her final game.
''No, because I just want to like cry,'' Abrahamson-Henderson said of the Jamaican-born Richards, a three-time conference player of the year. ''I say it all the time: `I don't know if we'll ever get another one like her.'''
Albany hardly depends solely on its star forward, though, with guard Imani Tate averaging 18.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 3.1 steals.
The formidable Great Danes backcourt also features Zakiya Saunders, who averages 11.3 points and 7.1 assists.
Albany is 0-4 in tournament play, including a 54-52 loss to Duke last year. It's 106-22 in their past four seasons.
The Gators have never faced Albany, Syracuse or Army, but are 3-1 in games played in New York.