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Saturday, November 26, 2022

SEC Tournament is the latest obstacle on the horizon for the Gators

Florida begins SEC tournament play Thursday in Nashville, Tennessee

Guard Kiara Smith in the huddle during a game against Missouri Feb. 27. The graduate student was named to the All SEC First Team and SEC All-Defense Team.
Guard Kiara Smith in the huddle during a game against Missouri Feb. 27. The graduate student was named to the All SEC First Team and SEC All-Defense Team.

The 2021-22 season for Florida women’s basketball has been nothing short of remarkable.

The idea that a team riddled with such scandal and scrutiny following a September report of an abusive environment under former coach Cam Newbauer, would blossom the way this team has this season is unparalleled in itself. When looking at the hurdles Florida overcame this season, it is a feat unlike any other.

The Gators finished top-five in the SEC and entered the top-25 rankings for the first time since December of 2016. Head coach Kelly Rae Finley said that she is confident in her team's ability to play in a high-pressure environment such as the SEC Tournament.

“You get an opportunity to give it your best shot one time and on that one day, the better team wins and moves on and the lesser team doesn't,” Finley said. “There is a focus and a looseness that you need to have come tournament time.”

Adapting to adversity is nothing new for this team. 

It was never an easy road for the Gators as early struggles in SEC play did not signal the unprecedented run they made in one of the nation’s most competitive conferences. Florida fell against Ole Miss and Georgia in early January and a flurry of talented SEC teams remained on the schedule.

Eventually, the Gators found success by defeating Texas A&M on the road for the first time in program history and dominating Auburn at home the following week. Yet, this victory was soon overshadowed as Finley broke the news that guard Lavender Briggs would be entering the transfer portal  Jan. 13.

Losing their leading scorer and rebounder did not stop the Gators from creating a road warrior mentality. They commanded wins in some of the most energized arenas in the SEC, racking up a 6-2 road record in conference play after falling to LSU and Vanderbilt. 

The Gators went on a tear following their victory in College Station, Texas. 

UF steamrolled its next four opponents, including crucial wins against two ranked opponents, LSU and Kentucky, which catapulted Florida to No. 19 in the AP poll.

The Gators would go on to win seven of their next eight, falling only to No.1 South Carolina, 62-50. Finley’s team was also able to redeem its early-season loss by splitting the season series with Georgia, defeating the Bulldogs 54-51in Athens, Georgia.

Now the Gators face a new challenge in this season of trials and tribulations. They have lost three of their last four games heading into the SEC Tournament, falling to No. 11 LSU, Vanderbilt and Missouri. 

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“We didn't get the results we wanted,” Finley said. “But I know that we’ve grown, so it's better to have those games before the tournament.”

The loss to the Commodores was due in large part to a disastrous 28 turnovers on offensive. Terrible rebounding in the second half gave Missouri the edge they needed to hand Florida its ninth loss of the year. With the seeding locked in, Florida will face Vanderbilt Thursday following a game between Missouri and Arkansas. 

“We found success in moments where maybe others didn't think we would, and then we faltered in moments where people thought we would flourish,” Finley said. “I think that’s all part of the game.”

Now the question remains: Does Florida have another remarkable run in its future?

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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