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Sunday, February 05, 2023
UF head coach Kelly Rae Finley observes the floor during a Sunday afternoon home stance against Missouri.
UF head coach Kelly Rae Finley observes the floor during a Sunday afternoon home stance against Missouri.

The Gator Nation’s love affair with head coach Kelly Rae Finely is officially set in stone.

Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin met with the women’s basketball program Monday and announced that Finley's interim tag will be removed in a video the team posted on its official Twitter account.

“I have this opportunity because of you guys,” Finley said during the meeting. “I owe it to you guys because of your hard work and your sacrifice.”

Finley, 36, was previously called complicit, and even accused of doing damage control during her time as an associate head coach under former head coach Cameron Newbauer by former player Cydnee Kinslow.

During a preseason press conference Oct. 28, graduate guard Kiki Smith adamantly claimed that Finley hadn’t let the team down.

Smith, Florida’s leading scorer and First-Team All-SEC phenom, was one of the first to congratulate her coach. She has been public in her defense of Finley throughout the season.

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The District Heights, Maryland, native said Monday she and the team appreciate Finley’s ability to be straightforward while showing inherent love and care for them as individuals.

“Kelly’s probably the realest coach, one of the realest coach I’ve ever played for,” Smith said. “She make you wanna play hard for her. She make you wanna be better. She gets the best out of everybody on and off the court.”

Lavender Briggs, who was the Gators’ leading scorer and rebounder until her mid-season transfer to the University of Maryland, also defended Finley that October day. She said that Kinslow didn’t speak on behalf of the whole team. Even before her eventual transfer, Briggs noted a renewed joy under the new coaching staff.

“There’s a lot more energy, there’s a lot more smiles,” Briggs said. “There’s a lot more people happy to actually be playing with each other and to be stepping on the court playing under the coaches we’re playing under.”

On the court, Finley has UF rolling into this week’s SEC Tournament as a five seed with a 20-9 record, 10-6 in conference. She was rewarded with a five-year contract that will lock up the Edina, Minnesota, native and national coach of the year candidate through the 2027 season, per Florida Gators senior writer Chris Harry.

Recent addition Zippy Broughton has been a huge catalyst this season after three years playing at Rutgers. The senior guard said she feels “forever indebted” to Finley in helping her find her love for basketball again.

“When you lose that spark and someone can help you find it again, and not only help you find it, but to inflame it even more, it’s a beautiful experience,” Broughton said. "She’s gonna find it in any of us.”

Finley was showered with support from players, other Gator coaches, a smattering of fans and media members on social media.

UF junior guard Nina Rickards echoed her backcourt teammates' support.

The most prominent female fixture in Florida athletics for the last 30 years has been head volleyball coach Mary Wise. An avid Finley supporter from day one, she too chimed in with praise.

From the other side of Gator hoops, men’s basketball head coach Mike White extended his congratulations to Finley.

Courtney Lyle has called a few of Finley’s games for ESPN and commented on the obviousness of promoting Finley.

Finley and Florida begin their quest for the SEC crown Thursday, taking on the winner of Vanderbilt and Texas A&M at 1 p.m at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. The game will be broadcast on the SEC Network.

Contact Caleb Wiegandt at Follow him on Twitter at @CalebWiegandt.

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