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College basketball

Gator focus on win, not UT mystique

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 19, 2003

GAINESVILLE -- Forget the pageantry of having one of the most storied women's college basketball programs in the nation in town.

Forget the implications of having Florida coach Carolyn Peck, a former Tennessee assistant, facing her former boss, legendary Pat Summitt.

And forget the aura of having Summitt, the winningest coach in women's basketball, in the O'Connell Center at 3 this afternoon.

For Florida, today is not about any of that.

During a season in which the young Gators have struggled, particularly in Southeastern Conference play, today is about one thing: figuring out a way to win.

Facing the possibility of its first 0-4 start in the SEC since 1986, the Gators need a win over anybody.

The No. 5 Vols happen to be the next anybody on the schedule.

Perhaps first-year coach Peck can sympathize with football coach Ron Zook. Taking over for a highly successful long-time coach is not always easy. It has been an inauspicious beginning for Peck, who took over for Carol Ross in January 2002. In 12 seasons with the Gators, Ross never lost four straight conference games.

With a roster full of young players and missing All-America center Vanessa Hayden (sidelined six weeks with a broken foot), the Gators are fighting an uphill battle in the conference.

Florida is 8-7 and has lost five of its past eight. Its past two outings have been crushing: a 105-62 loss to Georgia and an 84-45 loss to Arkansas. It is a situation the Gators are not taking lightly, Peck said.

"I think they are taking it seriously," she said. "I think that there's a little bit of an anxiety of (playing) in the SEC and all the hype you get about the SEC, and you get more focused on that (more) than you do actually playing the ballgame.

"We've proven that we can play outside the conference, now we've got to prove we can in it."

Today might be a tough time to make that case: Tennessee is 13-3, undefeated in the conference and leads the series 30-1.

When Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley contacted Summitt last year to solicit advice about potential candidates to replace Ross, the first name she offered was Peck's. A Tennessee assistant in 1994 and '95, Summitt was familiar with Peck, who won a national championship at Purdue in 1999. Summitt said she understands what Peck is facing, but knows she will succeed.

"She is going to get the job done," Summitt said. "We're all challenged to be patient in those situations, and I know Carolyn knows how to get those players to succeed. I supported Jeremy Foley's decision to hire Carolyn for a number of reasons. She knew how to get it done at the national level, and she proved herself with the Purdue team. She also understands recruiting nationally, and that's the name of the game. She's put together a great staff to make that happen and having played in the SEC at Vanderbilt and being with UT and Kentucky ... she knows the expectations."

What Florida has is nine of 12 players with one year or less of Division I basketball experience, including five freshmen. What the Gators don't have is Hayden. After leading the nation in blocked shots last season, the junior was suspended, then knocked out with a fractured left fibula and right ankle sprain Dec. 7.

"She looks good," Peck said. "Her weight is down, so now we're to a point that it's day to day, which is encouraging. It's just a matter of does Kellye (Mowchan, director of women's health), does Vanessa feel and do I feel that the break has healed enough to play. ... I'm not going to put a player out there on a broken bone."

While its record may say one thing, the coaching staff says Florida has the potential to be a very good team.

"We aren't that far away," assistant coach Charlene Thomas-Swinson said. "I think that we have been playing well at times in both halves in our first two SEC games. They know they have to have two good halves to win. We have talked about it and we're going to work on it. We have to work on our transition defense to slow opposing offenses down and avoid them getting easy baskets. Once we do that, the score will be closer in late games."

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