Florida in an Empire spoiler State of mind at Syracuse
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) It's not lost on coach Amanda Butler that her Gators are the only team competing in Syracuse that's lacking a New York zip code.
That leaves her 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.
''That's the plan, definitely,'' Butler said Thursday, knowing fifth-seeded Florida (22-8) faces a distinct home-crowd disadvantage facing 12-seeded Albany (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.
Not so fast, said Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman, whose fourth-seeded Orange (25-7) host Army (29-2).
The Orange didn't work this hard in earning the right to host the first two rounds at the Carrier Dome only to relinquish the edge to anyone.
''I know a lot of teams don't talk about those things, but we're brutally honest, and we talked about what it would take to play at home,'' said Hillsman. ''And our girls took care of that business, and we're here.''
After losing to Notre Dame in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, Syracuse earned its highest seed in eight tournament appearances, and also best among the seven New York-based schools in the tournament.
The Orange will face the Patriot League champions in a game featuring two of the nation's most accomplished 3-point shooters. Syracuse senior Brianna Butler leads the country with 355 career 3-point baskets. Army's Kelsey Minato ranks fourth with 318.
The Gators face five-time defending America East champion Great Danes, who play in the state capital, just 145 miles down the New York State Thruway, east of Syracuse.
Florida, by comparison, 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.
Leaning on a relentless up-tempo style and a deep bench, the Gators finished fourth after going 10-6 in conference play – including their fourth win in 52 meetings against Tennessee.
Junior guard/forward Ronni Williams credited the turnaround on a monthlong 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.''
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, forward Shereesha Richards.
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.''
Syracuse: In 10 seasons under Hillsman, the Orange are 77-4 against non-conference opponents at home, and had a 72-game win streak snapped in a 61-54 loss to Arizona State on Dec. 12.
Florida: The Gators have never faced Albany, Syracuse or Army, but are 3-1 in games played in New York.
Albany: The Great Danes are 0-4 in tournament play, including a 54-52 loss to Duke last year. They're 106-22 in their past four seasons.
Army: The Black Knights are riding a school-record 19-game winning streak, dating to a 79-69 loss at Bucknell on Jan. 2. They're other defeat was a 72-61 loss at then No. 14 Duke on Nov. 22.