Carlie Needles expected to contribute heavily last season.
The redshirt freshman from Highlands Ranch, Colo., anticipated joining a Gators backcourt full of veteran talent she could learn from and play alongside. On Nov. 6, everything changed.
Five days before Florida’s women’s basketball team opened its season against Michigan, Needles’ year ended. She suffered ACL and meniscus tears in her left knee during a scrimmage.
When trainers gave her the news days later, she felt a range of emotions.
“I cried for about 15 seconds,” she said. “Then I thought about what I had to do next to get back.”
She spent the offseason walking through Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to strengthen her knee before beginning therapy sessions. Eleven months after the injury, she is back.
With much of last season’s backcourt gone, Needles will step into a prominent role. Jaterra Bonds is the lone returning guard who averaged more than 20 minutes per game in 2011-12.
Gators coach Amanda Butler said she sees similarities between Bonds and Needles.
“I compare [Needles] to Jaterra in the way that she leads and the way that she is so aggressive in how she controls the floor,” Butler said. “[Needles] is not hesitant at all to address a teammate in a positive way and certainly sometimes when it’s got to be in an enforcing way.”
Needles said there were facets of the game she better understands after spending a season watching from the bench.
Most notably, she said the team has to improve its ability to finish games. Of UF’s 13 losses last season, 10 were decided by six points or fewer — including two in overtime.
“It’s the little things that you don’t think about that make a difference,” she said, identifying the team’s poor percentage from the free-throw line late in games as a specific example.
Butler agreed, saying the Gators have to learn to close out games in the final four minutes, a point when UF often let games slip away last season.
That begins with the focus Needles can bring in her return to the court.
“Carlie has taken full advantage of the year that she did have to sit and wait,” Butler said. “She was already a kid whose fire burned pretty bright, and it was almost like pouring a bunch of gasoline on that passion that was already inside of her.”