Gators fans got a taste of the revamped Florida women's basketball team during an exhibition game against Saint Leo at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center Nov. 2. The Gators hammered the Lions over four quarters, securing an overwhelming 110-46 victory.
Although one game is a small sample size , the Gators seemed to sport a newfound confidence. Head coach Kelly Rae Finlay, entering her second year in charge, said the team is ready for the season.
“We’re still working on our mentality, but I think our mentality is good,” Finley said. “When we hit our lulls, we don’t get to quit. We don’t get to stop playing. When something hard happens, you gotta bounce back.”
Florida stands at seventh in the preseason Southeastern Conference coaches’ poll and sixth in the media rankings, a big jump from a year ago. Last season, the Gators were picked to finish 12th but composed a surprising 21-11 record, which included a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Expectations are high for the program after having its best record since the 2015-16 season when the Gators finished 22-9. It is also the first time Finley had an entire offseason with her team.
The 37-year-old coach took the helm of the program Feb. 28 after serving as interim head coach for nearly seven months. She had been in charge after former head coach Cam Newbauer stepped down amid reports of abuse in July 2021.
In FInley's first season, the program bounced back after five consecutive losing seasons. Florida reached the first round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2016.
To prepare for the challenge, Finley built a diverse squad consisting of two freshmen, five sophomores, two juniors and five seniors. The roster also includes graduate guard Zippy Broughton, one of the team’s top scorers and assists leaders, but her role will be limited to the sideline.
Broughton announced via Instagram Oct. 13 she would be out for the year after suffering an undisclosed season-ending injury.
"If there is one thing we learned as a team last season, it was how to face adversity and still find a way to flourish together," Broughton’s statement read. "Unfortunately in the time since, I've suffered a season-ending injury. While this bump in the road limits my ability to contribute on the floor, I will continue to be just as impactful from the sideline with my voice and my energy. Our story is just beginning."
To cover for the experienced Broughton, the Gators will rely on four transfers. Those include guards KK Deans (West Virginia), Leilani Correa (St. Johns) and Aliyah Matharu (Texas), as well as center Ra Shaya Kyle (Purdue).
Florida also retains sophomore guard Alberte Rimdal, senior guard Nina Rickards and junior forward Jordyn Merritt. Last season, Merritt averaged 10.1 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, while Rickards contributed eight points a contest.
Sophomore forward Taliyah Wyche said the team has already built camaraderie within the locker room by spending time together over the offseason.
“We’re together every single night from the start. As soon as [the transfers] got here, we started hanging out with each other, getting to know each other on a different level and that really helps us,” Wyche said.
Finley agreed, describing her players as sisters. She said each player will cover for the other, just like they did in the exhibition against Saint Leo.
“We’re growing in our communication and their connection, and as the season goes on, I know that that’s something that we’re really committed to showcasing,” Finley said. “We believe that’s a skill that we have that sets us apart from other teams.”
Florida displayed a high-octane game style, pressuring Saint Leo all over the court. The Gators also relied on impeccable ball defense, registering 16 steals. UF had seven players finish the night in double-digit scoring and combined different players on different rotations.
The Gators begin their season Nov. 7 against the Florida A&M Rattlers, with tipoff from the O’Dome scheduled for 5:30 p.m. The game will stream on SEC Network+.
Jose Tovar is a fourth-year journalism student at the University of Florida specializing in sports and media. He has covered softball and soccer as a beat writer and aspires to work in the sports media industry.