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Associated Press

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Five seasons after she won it all at Purdue, then left the college game altogether, coach Carolyn Peck is back in the NCAA Tournament.

She's the coach at Florida now, rebuilding a Gators team that went 9-19 last season, but now finds itself seeded fifth in the Midwest Regional, with an opening game Saturday against New Mexico.

The game is in Albuquerque, N.M., the raucous home of the Lobos. A daunting task? Yes, but Peck has thrived under more difficult circumstances.

In 1999, her second year at Purdue, she led the Boilermakers to the national championship despite entering the season as a lame-duck coach, having accepted a front-office and coaching job with the Orlando Miracle of the WNBA the previous summer.

The keys to her success then were lessons learned as an assistant to Tennessee coach Pat Summitt and Nell Fortner, who left Purdue to coach the U.S. national team, which opened the door for Peck to take over.

"It's staying very focused on one possession at a time," Peck said. "You don't put too much emphasis on what this game means. You don't put too much emphasis on the fact that if you don't win, you go home. The teams that do that are the ones that have longevity in the tournament."

Peck should know. The 6-foot-4 former center at Vanderbilt went 57-11 as coach at Purdue. In her first season, she led the Boilermakers to the regional finals. In her second, the championship year, she was named Associated Press Coach of the Year.

Her three seasons in Orlando were mediocre, but it didn't deter Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley when he decided it was time for a change. Only eight active coaches have won the women's NCAA championship, and Peck is one of them.

Peck gets lots of credit for the quick turnaround from last year. Another key factor is the return to health of center Vanessa Hayden. Hayden missed a big chunk of last season with a broken leg. This season, she has averaged 19.3 points and 10.7 rebounds.

Hayden was a first-team Southeastern Conference selection and the SEC defensive player of the year. Those were two of 12 honors and awards she received this season.

"It is an honor to get all these awards," she said. "I'm just going to keep playing. It does help me out and gives me a lot of confidence."

Although Florida would have to be considered a major longshot in a sport in which three or four teams -- starting with Tennessee and Connecticut -- dominate, Peck's presence is changing the attitude a bit.

The Gators weren't expected to do much this season. Slowly, however, they started turning things around. The highlight of the season: a 10-point win at ninth-ranked Georgia on Feb. 26.

Peck views that game as proof that Florida can hang with anyone, in any arena. It will be tested against New Mexico, where a big crowd will be in The Pit cheering against Florida.

"One thing I do know is the floor is 94 feet long and the goals are 10 feet high," Peck said. "To be successful in the tournament, you've got to learn to put all that other stuff aside."

1 Penn State
2 Connecticut
3 Houston
4 North Carolina
5 Notre Dame
6 Colorado
7 Auburn
8 Virginia Tech
9 Iowa
10 North Carolina State
11 UC Santa Barbara
12 Southwest Missouri State
13 Middle Tennessee
14 UW-Green Bay
15 Penn
16 Hampton
1 Duke
2 Kansas State
3 Boston College
4 Texas Tech
5 Louisiana Tech
6 Ohio State
7 Minnesota
8 Old Dominion
9 Marquette
11 West Virginia
12 Montana
13 Maine
14 Eastern Michigan
15 Valparaiso
16 Northwestern State
1 Texas
2 Purdue
3 Georgia
5 Miami
7 Villanova
8 Michigan State
9 Arizona
10 Mississippi
11 Temple
12 Maryland
13 Austin Peay
14 Liberty
15 St. Francis (Pa.)
16 Southern
1 Tennessee
2 Vanderbilt
3 Oklahoma
4 Baylor
5 Florida
6 Stanford
7 Rutgers
8 George Washington
9 DePaul
10 Chattanooga
11 Missouri
12 New Mexico
13 Loyola Marymount
14 Marist
15 Lipscomb
16 Colgate