Competing in the SEC under the duress Florida’s women’s basketball program has been through in the past year should be virtually impossible.
Despite the noise, Kelly Rae Finley has the Gators not only winning, but thriving.
The interim head coach’s trial season is deep into SEC play, and to the surprise of many, the Gators are blowing past expectations in a league they were expected by coaches to place 11th in. Florida’s success over the past two months has the team on the verge of locking up its first NCAA Tournament bid in six years.
Finley’s path to guiding the program, at least for the time being, is filled with turmoil and controversy.
Former head coach Cameron Newbaeur resigned last summer after a woeful four years leading the Gators. A September report made national news as it unveiled the abusive culture Newbauer created in his time in Gainesville.
A five-year UF staffer and former associate head coach, Finley was named the interim solution to the Gators’ problem. Florida athletic director Scott Strickin chose her to lead the troubled program through the ensuing season.
Florida’s 2021-22 campaign wasn’t always smooth sailing. Early on, the Gators lost non-conference games to Towson and George Mason. Then came the sudden departure of Lavender Briggs to Maryland via transfer Jan. 20. However, since the start of the new year, Finley has flipped the script, and her Gators are stacking wins.
Finley continues to make a case to retain her job, but she’s not the only one. Even opposing SEC coaches, in victory and defeat, have advocated for Finley’s permanent installation.
Louisiana State head coach Kim Mulkey is known for her fiery personality. It’s something she’s built a reputation for long before she arrived in Baton Rouge this season.
That fire was on display when Florida defeated Mulkey’s then-No. 11 Tigers 73-72 Jan. 23. A game-high 35 points from LSU guard Khayla Pointer wasn’t enough to combat Gators Jordyn Merritt, Kiki Smith and Zippy Broughton combining for 53.
In a Feb. 6 press conference, Mulkey praised Finley with that fire unprompted, calling for her hiring at UF before another job comes knocking for the 36-year-old coach.
“I don’t understand why that girl hadn’t been named the head coach yet,” Mulkey said. “I don’t know her, but I know what I see.”
Mulkey’s not alone in that sentiment.
After getting eked out in the final seconds by Broughton’s heroics Feb. 6, Georgia head coach Joni Taylor also had strong words about Finley.
“I’ve been asked a few times what’s the difference,” Taylor said in a press conference clip. “Kelly Rae Finley is the difference.”
The gutsy road win over the Bulldogs was the performance that finally vaulted the Gators into the Associated Press Top-25.
If not outwardly praising Finley by name, other coaches have lauded her team’s performance and the way she’s put Florida in a position to climb the SEC standings.
Finley’s team blistered national powerhouse Tennessee 84-59 Feb. 3. The victory stands as UF’s largest win over a top-10 opponent in school history. The Gators outrebounded the nation’s best rebounding team, leaving Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper perplexed.
“I knew going in this is honestly, watching them play, one of the best teams in the SEC,” Harper said in a press conference clip. “I think they’re that good, and they’re getting better.”
Even after a game where the nation’s top team, South Carolina, snapped Florida’s five-game SEC win streak, Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley commended Finley’s body of work. She hinted at a new era coming, one where the Gators become a contender again with each following season.
“It’s just a matter of time,” Staley said. “She’s got ‘em rolling.”
In Finley’s year as an interim, she has Florida poised to put not just the SEC on notice, but the whole college basketball landscape. Gator fans can finally circle March on their calendars as meaningful again.
However, the decision still lies in Stricklin’s hands. After all the losing and irrelevancy, compounded by a scandal, Florida women’s hoops has suffered in recent years. The Gator faithful now wait to see if Stricklin will keep a rare winner on campus.
If it were up to Finley’s peers, the decision would already be made.
Contact Caleb Wiegandt at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CalebWiegandt.