Tears rolled down head coach Kelly Rae Finley’s face.
She sat in front of a microphone minutes after Florida women’s basketball’s comeback win over Vanderbilt March 3 in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, but her team lost graduate student Kiara Smith for the rest of the season after a knee injury late in the fourth quarter.
“Your heart aches a little bit when you care so much about each other,” Finley said.
Finley’s first time leading the team through a tumultuous season was driven by the care and joy she infused in her team. Using her experiences as a college player to relate to and guide her players through adversity, Finley orchestrated a historic season for the Gators that culminated in their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2016.
Finley knew first-hand how devastating an injury like Smith’s can be to a college player. As a freshman at Northwestern, she was relegated to a sideline spectator after breaking her right leg during the 2004-2005 season. She took the challenge and adapted.
“I learned how to be a great teammate,” she said. ”And I think that's probably where I learned that hard doesn't necessarily mean bad.”
Finley took over the program in July following the toxic environment and abuse players said they endured under former head coach Cam Newbauer's leadership.
Along with the scrutiny and media attention that came with Newbauer’s exit and reputation, Florida lost its first two games of conference play to Georgia and Ole Miss. The Gators also lost an essential offensive weapon when junior Lavender Briggs, already injured for the rest of the season, entered the transfer portal and signed with Maryland.
Despite less-than-ideal circumstances, UF went on a dominant run in the SEC, winning 10 of 11 games to finish 10-6 in conference play.
Finley recruited Zippy Broughton, a Rutgers transfer, out of high school before she signed with the Scarlet Knights in 2018.
Her connection with Finley breathed new life into her college career; the senior found a new home due in large part to Finley’s willingness to help her with anything she needed.
“In collegiate athletics, [there are so] many times where a lot of our sparks diminish, maybe because of a lack of confidence, maybe because of a lack of a belief from others,” Broughton said. “She reciprocated my energy.”
Broughton marveled at Finley’s ability to stay in the moment and give her players the attention they deserved no matter what kind of day she was having off the court.
“When she steps into these four lines or even when she steps into that office, she knows she has to show up for us because she is our leader,” Broughton said.
Freshman Alberte Rimdal sees Finley as a passionate and confident role model. The Koge, Denmark, native earned SEC Freshman of the week in January and was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team under Finley’s guidance.
She wanted to be surrounded by strong women and credited Finley with fostering that environment.
Finley’s ability to relate to players helped Rimdal change her approach to the game for the better. Rimdal categorizes herself as a cerebral player, to a fault. She said Finley loosened her up and got her to be more present on the court.
“She cares about us as players but also as humans on a whole other level,” Rimdal said. “I think that means a lot to us that we know that she cares about us.”
The Gators’ time in the NCAA tournament this season was short-lived; they fell to Central Florida in the first round 69-52. As Florida looks ahead to next season, however, three new additions to Finley’s depth chart signal great things ahead. Senior guards Leilani Correa and KK Deans flocked to Gainesville after three years at St. Johns and West Virginia, respectively.
Junior center Ra Shaya Kyle will come to Florida after a two-year stint with the Purdue Boilermakers. The lengthy post player is sure to help an undersized Florida team compete underneath the basket.
Under Finley’s tutelage, Florida’s new and returning key players are primed to make a splash as next season inches closer to tip off.
Brenda Bogle is a UF journalism senior with a specialization in sports and media. She joined The Alligator in the Fall of 2021.