Kayla Lewis and Carlie Needles watched from the bench last season as Florida earned its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2009.
One season later, both are playing key roles in the Gators’ effort to notch consecutive Big Dance appearances for the first time in 11 years.
Lewis, a redshirt sophomore, has developed into the type of player coach Amanda Butler envisioned the former Miss Georgia Basketball would become. Lewis is averaging 8.1 points and 5.8 rebounds per game while collecting 22 steals and 14 assists this season.
“Whatever it takes for the team to win, that’s my mentality,” Lewis said. “Some people consider themselves scorers or rebounders, I just want to do whatever it takes for us to be successful.”
Needles, who suffered an ACL tear before last season, has developed into Florida’s go-to three-point shooter with freshman Chandler Cooper out. Cooper has been sidelined with a foot injury since a 98-67 loss at Florida State on Nov. 15.
Needles is 32 of 87 from behind the arc, a team-leading 36.8 percent clip. She is fourth on the team in scoring, averaging 8.4 points per contest.
While spending a season on the sidelines, Needles developed an appreciation for Lewis’ determination.
As a freshman in 2010, Lewis played in just 16 games, muddling through multiple leg injuries before missing UF’s final 19 games. She suffered a stress fracture in her leg last season and received a medical redshirt.
“Just being a redshirt with [Lewis] last year was really hard seeing her having to sit twice,” Needles said. “She’s really grateful to be out on the court right now, and she is trying to bring her athletic ability.”
As the Gators marched toward the postseason in 2012, Lewis and Needles were joined by a common frustration with their inability to contribute on the court.
The two often sat near each other on the bench, offering encouragement to one another and hoping for a chance to one day make an impact on the floor.
“You never are ready for an injury,” Lewis said. “Being injured two years in a row, you always are on the defense, always ready for something bad to happen.”
But a year later, the two finally have the opportunity to help Florida.
In a 77-72 victory against LSU on Sunday, UF lost senior forward Jennifer George, who suffered a dislocated right shoulder late in the second half.
Lewis and Needles, along with Jaterra Bonds, responded by carrying the team to a significant win.
“Carlie, Jaterra and Kayla ... were our core tonight,” Butler said after the victory. “They did a great job of sustaining this through a lot of different ups and downs, and that’s important.”
Finally healthy, Lewis anticipates improvement individually and as a team.
“A lot of people have been excited to see me play and be healthy,” Lewis said.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m expecting a lot of myself, and I know my coaches and teammates are (as well).”
Contact Phillip Heilman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Guard Kayla Lewis (22) drives the lane during Florida’s 77-72 win against LSU on Sunday in the O’Connell Center.