Four minutes could be the key to Florida's season

Marshae Dotson, left, Sha Brooks and Florida upset two top-25 teams en route to a 10-1 start. AP Photo/Phil Sandlin

How long does it take to build a championship team? A few weeks, months, seasons? Not likely. If you're lucky, you might pull it off in a couple of years. But more reasonably, you're looking at half a decade of hard labor.

But in Gainesville, where the Florida Gators have won SEC and NCAA titles in football, men's basketball and other sports, they don't like to wait that long. Patience might be a virtue -- except when it comes to cutting down nets or hoisting trophies.

So coach Amanda Butler and Florida's women's basketball team think they can get the job done sooner. In fact, they figure it'll take … four minutes.

Call them crazy, but the Gators might be on to something. The blueprint: Set the tone for the entire game by playing hard the first four minutes. Jump on the opponent early and never let up.

So far, the strategy is working as the Gators have stormed to a 10-1 start (after an inexplicable loss to Florida Gulf Coast in its season opener, Florida has won 10 straight). This week, they broke into the Top 25 for the first time this season, at No. 24 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll and No. 20 in the Associated Press poll.

"We want to set the tone and be the aggressor," said Butler, who is in her second season coaching at her alma mater. "Win the first four minutes. We used to say it when I played here for Carol Ross, and we still live it today. At the start of every game, one team comes out swinging and one team gets hit in the mouth. We want to hit first, and we've won the first four minutes in just about every win this year."

Butler was a scrappy point guard at Florida for Ross back in the early 1990s. She helped build the Gators into an SEC contender while laying the foundation for a few years of national prominence in the late '90s. The current crop of Gators has taken on the coach's attitude.

"We're playing a totally different game under [Butler]," said senior Marshae (mar-SHAY) Dotson, an All-SEC forward. "We get it and go and we play at a fast pace. We want to be aggressive, and we aren't afraid to make mistakes. We play free, and it's like we go hard or we don't go."

Senior guard Sha (Shay) Brooks teams with Dotson for a terrific one-two punch. She also has embraced the come-out-swinging philosophy.

"We play aggressive, and those first four minutes really set the tone," said Brooks, who has started 102 consecutive games. "That determines what happens the rest of the game. That's what we did against Florida State this year, and they didn't know what hit them and never recovered. That's the first time I've beaten them in my career, so that was a good night."

There have been plenty of good nights this season for Dotson and Brooks, who ride a 10-game winning streak into Sunday's showdown with No. 19 Pitt.

The highlights so far include a 72-57 upset of then-No. 21 Florida State in November, in which Brooks poured in 24 points and Dotson hauled in 13 rebounds.
A week later, the Gators took down then-No. 19 Arizona State 65-60. Brooks lit up former Pac-10 defender of the year Briann January for 25 points. Meanwhile, 5-foot-11 Dotson held her own against a Sun Devils front-line trio that sometimes stood as much as 7 inches taller.

"Marshae is a beast on the block," said Brooks, who leads the Gators with 12 points and four assists per game. "She is undersized but fearless. You look at her and think there's no way she can get her shot off down there. But she's so creative she always finds a way."

Butler agrees with the assessment and adds that Dotson has a "Charles Barkley-esque" nose for the ball. She calls Dotson powerful and explosive and says she's finally feeling comfortable with her place in the paint.

"The other team is always going to have somebody bigger than me, but I'm ready for it," said Dotson, who has led the Gators in rebounding for three straight seasons. Her field goal percentage against the taller timber is a very respectable 60 percent.

"I have the confidence to be in the paint with anybody," Dotson added. "It's been a challenge to face Candace Parker, Sylvia Fowles and Seimone Augustus in the last few years in the SEC. I'm not going to back down from anybody, I love being the underdog."

The Gators might not be underdogs much longer, especially if they chomp on another ranked foe when Pitt comes to town.

Brooks' ability to take on more leadership responsibilities and to move from her spot as a natural shooting guard to running the point have been critical to Florida's success.

"She's more involved with the ball in her hands more often," said Butler, who is just the sixth women's basketball coach to have played and coached on a Top 25 team at the same school. "She is quick and real slippery, so she's hard to slow down. Sha has had to find other ways to score; she's in the paint more and not just settling for 3s. Her defense doesn't get enough credit, either."

But there's plenty of balance, too, and Brooks and Dotson can't say enough about how their teammates have pitched in to hasten the rebuilding process at Florida.

"Our team has depth, chemistry and an aggressive attitude," Brooks said. "Everyone is contributing, each person is stepping up, so opponents can't key on one player, they can't double-team Marshae. I love that about our team."

You won't find a 6-footer in the Gators' starting lineup, but that doesn't bother Butler, who says aggression and confidence can overcome speed and size.

Plus, 20 points per game off the bench doesn't hurt, either. You want toughness, check out 6-4 Azania Stewart. She summered in China with the English Olympic team and is playing with just one kidney this season after having one removed in September.

Then there's 6-3 Aneika Henry throwing down the occasional dunk in practice and 6-3 redshirt freshman Ndidi Madu, who might be the quickest post despite an ACL injury last year.

"Our bench and our newcomers bring incredible energy," Butler said. "Every day, there is competition in practice and a big boost in games. It's like our scrimmages are must-win situations with the kids cheering each other on. It's big for our confidence and chemistry."

In Gainesville, the hope is to get back to the glory days of DeLisha Milton-Jones and Murriel Page. A decade ago, when Butler was an assistant at Florida, that dynamic duo starred for Gators teams that went to the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. That success has not been equaled by the program since.

"We don't talk specifics about our past at Florida, but the players know," said Butler, who was a member of the first Florida team to play in the NCAA tournament. "We put people in front of them to meet and talk to, like [former Gators] Tiffany Travis and Tonya Washington, who have visited us on the road. And Carol Ross has been in to speak to us before. It makes it real, they appreciate a different era."

Now, Brooks and Dotson hope to accomplish what the past Gators greats never could: win a championship. The SEC race is wide open with Tennessee and LSU relying heavily on freshmen. Vanderbilt and Auburn appear to have the inside track, but the Gators are gearing up for the chase.

"We are gaining confidence every game," Brooks said "We are starting to see that anything is possible. We see ourselves winning an SEC championship and more."

Dotson is particularly motivated to etch her name in Gators history.

"There is a wall of plaques in the weight room at the football stadium that all the athletes see every day," she said. "Each sport has its own plaque [there are 20], and each plaque is engraved with the dates of their SEC and NCAA championships. Our [women's basketball] plaque is the only one that's blank. We don't have a date. We want to do something about that."

Butler hopes this is just the start of good things for the Gators.

"They sense and seize the moment," she said. "They get a little taste of winning, a little taste of attention, and they are hungry for more. They know we're not there yet."

But it might take just four minutes to get there.

Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.