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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Battle-tested Gators look to dance past talented UCF

Florida’s NCAA tournament journey begins in Storrs, Connecticut

<p>Florida head coach Kelly Rae Finley and forward Jordyn Merritt discuss the game plan before Merritt checks into the game against Missouri Feb. 27</p>

Florida head coach Kelly Rae Finley and forward Jordyn Merritt discuss the game plan before Merritt checks into the game against Missouri Feb. 27

Women’s basketball head coach Kelly Rae Finley is very familiar with the environment in Storrs, Connecticut, playing one of her first games in a Colorado State uniform against the Huskies back in 2006.

The day didn’t go according to plan, as her team hit a few road bumps before game time. Nevertheless, Finley still looks back on the moment with a great fondness. 

“It was a cool day,” Finley said. “We got stuck, the team had to split up, I’ll never forget it. Half of us got in at one time, half at another time.”

Finley’s ability to see the positive out of bleak and challenging circumstances has clearly made its impression years later as she leads a rejuvenated Florida team into the NCAA tournament.

UF’s first appearance in the tournament since 2016 comes off a stellar season where the Gators went 21-10, including a 10-6 conference record. Finley’s short time at the helm also produced wins against ranked opponents LSU, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Texas A&M.

Unfortunately, the SEC tournament saw the Gators lose more than just a basketball game. 

Florida defeated Vanderbilt after losing its leading scorer, graduate senior Kiara 

Smith, to a season-ending knee injury. The Gators fell to Ole Miss in the quarterfinal the following day. Sophomore Jordyn Merritt sustained a hard fall in the loss to the Rebels and according to Finley, Merritt’s status is day-to-day as she works to get back on the court against Central Florida.

The Knights (25-3, 14-1) are more than worthy of their bid to the tournament following a historic season of their own. UCF captured its first American Athletic Conference championship in a decisive fashion, defeating Southern Methodist, Tulsa and South Florida.

“UCF is an incredibly talented team,” Finley said. “They play a tenacious matchup zone. They will press you for 40 minutes, and we will not look past them.”

In the Knights conference title game against South Florida, they forced 17 turnovers and outrebounded the Bulls 39-33. Florida will need to take care of the basketball and find creative ways to overcome its size disadvantage in the paint to advance past the Knights. 

UCF guard Diamond Battles proved to be a major cornerstone for the Knights as she scored a team high 17 points against USF. The senior is AAC Player of the Year and earned Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. Forward Masseny Kaba compiled  notable accolades during the AAC conference bracket, earning all-tournament recognition for the second year in a row. 

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Keeping turnovers to a minimum has been a struggle for Florida this season, most notably in a sloppy 28 turnover performance against Vanderbilt. The performance against the Commodores was a part of a three-game losing stretch to end the regular season.

“We’ve triumphed in some moments and we faltered in some moments,” Finley said. “We can play a lot of different styles of basketball and that should give our group tremendous confidence moving into the postseason.”

Florida’s quest for a national championship begins March 19 with a 3:30 p.m. tipoff against UCF. The game will be broadcast on ESPNews. 

 If Florida advances, they face the winner of  the 1:00 p.m. game featuring Connecticut and Mercer. 

Contact Brenda Bogle at Follow her on Twitter @bogle_brenda.

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Brenda Bogle

Brenda Bogle is a UF journalism senior with a specialization in sports and media. She joined The Alligator in the Fall of 2021.

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