No. 10 seed Florida women's basketball embracing underdog role in NCAA matchup with No. 7 UCF
She may ultimately disagree with the Gators' selection as a No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament, considering UF’s overall success this season, but Florida women’s basketball coach Kelly Rae Finley has an optimistic perspective considering the unfavorable circumstances.
After all, it’s hardly the first time the Gators — who finished the regular season with 21 wins, eight of which came against top-25 opponents — have been considered an underdog as a result of outside expectations.
They’re accustomed to subverting expectations, not living up to them.
Finley wants the Gators to embrace the underdog mentality that led them to this point when UF returns to the court Saturday at 3:30 p.m. against the University of Central Florida in the Bridgeport, Conn., region of the NCAA Tournament. The game will be played in Storrs, Conn.
The winner of the matchup between the Gators and the Knights will face the winner of No. 2 UConn or No. 15 seed Mercer in the second round.
“We want to earn everything, we’re not entitled, we’re not an entitled group,” Finley said. “And going into the NCAA Tournament, the mindset is no different: we’re the underdogs. We’re the 10th seed, UCF is the seventh — congratulations to them on that — but a number is just a number. That’s why you step on the floor: to compete, to be your best every single time.”
UCF has never defeated Florida in women's basketball
UCF and Florida have never met in the postseason, but the Gators hold a 25-0 series advantage over their in-state rival, with their last meeting in 2015 for a 93-79 UF victory.
The Knights received an automatic bid after winning the AAC conference tournament, and have been consistently impressive throughout the year, but the program has never won an NCAA Tournament game.
Florida’s had far more success in the postseason, though the present undoubtedly matters far more than the past when it comes to this matchup. And the Gators have been in a bit of a rut, having lost four of five games prior to the NCAA Tournament. However, no loss was as detrimental as the loss of UF senior guard Kiara “Kiki” Smith.
The sixth-year guard, who led the Gators in multiple statistical categories this season, suffered a season-ending knee injury in Florida's 53-52 comeback victory over Vanderbilt in the first round of the SEC Tournament. It’s an injury that will put the brunt of the ball-handling responsibilities largely on the shoulders of Zippy Broughton and Alberte Rimdal against the Knights, said Finley. There’s plenty of reason to believe Smith’s injury was a factor in Florida’s seeding, as was Jordyn Merritt’s day-to-day status.
Although she won’t be able to lead the Gators on the court against UCF, Smith’s presence continues to be felt in the build-up to the tournament.
“We think she’s a pro in everything she does — how she operates, how she leads,” FInley said of Smith. “There’s not many people I’ve known in my life that could have that injury the day before and turn around and make their focus their team. She’s a winner in everything she does, and she leads us. It’s been tremendous to see her selflessness, her commitment to our team, to her teammates, to challenging them, and to making and uplifting this program. And that’s why she came back, and that’s why I think she’ll go down as one of the best players to ever play at the University of Florida.
"When you talk about the story that was written this year, she’s a huge catalyst in that, and it’s no different for us now.”
Again, Finley finds the positive in a negative situation. As she prepares for her first NCAA Tournament as a head coach, Finley has found a bright side to her own injury, which was reported to be a stress fracture that derailed her promising collegiate career in 2005.
“It made me a better coach. At the time, I didn’t see or understand how fortunate I was going to be in my future,” Finley said. “The ability to relate to being highly recruited, going somewhere, starting and playing a lot of minutes, trying to turn around a program and being shut down with an injury — it taught me the importance of the value of being part of a team. And that’s what I want our student-athletes to learn, is that together you can do far more as an individual. Things might not go your way, but you can only control what you can control, and within that, you can do great things.”