Florida's new basketball eras bring a better vibe for men's, women's programs

David Whitley
Gator Sports
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Florida had trouble making basketballs go through stationary rims the past few years. Monday night, the Gators were sharp enough to hit a moving target.

In this case, it was Todd Golden.

“We drenched him with water after the game,” guard Kyle Lofton said. “It means a lot.”

Kelli Rae Finley didn’t get the same celebratory soaking, though it was still something of a milestone night for UF’s women’s team.

Finley got her first regular season win as the full-fledged coach. It came in the front end of a rare men’s/women’s doubleheader.

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Yes, we interrupt this football season to announce that basketball has arrived. A good time was had by all at the O’Connell Center.

“It’s just a great atmosphere,” Leilani Correa said. “The fans, oh my goodness. It’s great to be a part of something.”

If you can’t have jolly good times against a warm-up opponent, when can you? Then again, nobody thought Stetson would beat FSU on Monday night.

There were no such surprises in Gainesville. UF’s women beat FAMU 83-55, while the men swamped Stony Brook 81-45.

The two teams have more in common than a nickname. Both are coached by 37-year-olds who believe in building relationships, positivity and making basketball fun. That last aspect has been in short supply around here the past few years.

Both teams have been picked No. 7 in the SEC. That’s not so much a reflection on UF’s weaknesses as it is the league’s power.

We didn’t learn much we didn’t already know on Monday. Florida’s talent isn’t Kentucky or South Carolina quality, but there’s plenty to work with.

Golden showed he could do that at San Francisco, taking the Dons to last season’s NCAA tournament. Finley showed it by rescuing Florida’s program from going over a cliff.

She was named interim coach after the Cam Newbauer fiasco. The “interim” was dropped after a 20-win regular season, and then Finley guided the Gators to their first NCAA tournament in six years.

Nerves of steel for Finley, Golden

So Monday wasn’t exactly a butterfly-inducing debut for Finley. As for Golden, the nerves never arrived.

“It was strange because I was expecting them a little bit,” he said. “But I felt really good about our preparation for the game. We’ve had a really, really good six months getting the foundation of the program kind of built up.”

Florida men's basketball coach Todd Golden talks to forward Alex Fudge during a timeout Monday night.

Those foundations include better 3-point shooting and rebounding than what fans are used to. The shooting got off to a 3-for-15 start, then the Gators hit seven of their last 10.

As for defense, UF took a 22-3 lead and didn’t really let up. It helped that Colin Castleton loomed like Godzilla whenever a Seawolf approached the rim.

Castleton and Lofton are UF’s foundational pieces. Beyond them, it’s a sea of willing and eager and mostly new faces.

Nine players logged at least 14 minutes against Stony Brook. LSU transfer Alex Fudge – get used to that name - came off the bench to lead the team with 16 points. Depth is good as long as the chemistry is right.

Florida women's basketball coach Kelly Rae Finley and forward Tatyana Wyche share a laugh during Monday night's season-opening win against Florida A&M.

“You really need it when conference play comes,” Castleton said. “The biggest thing is just having the right mental mindset about it.”

Consider this season an extended exam in team chemistry. Golden said someone might play 25 minutes one night, five the next.

It depends on the opponent and the circumstances. To make that work will depend on a chemistry that values team above self.

Walk-ons Klatsky, May score first collegiate points in opener

That was no problem during Monday’s funhouse romp, especially at the end. The bench erupted when junior walk-on Alex Klatsky scored his first career points on a 3-pointer with 46 seconds left in the game.

“That was the highlight of my night,” Lofton said.

Highlight II came on the next possession, when sophomore walk-on Jack May put back an offensive rebound for his first collegiate points.

Passing the first chemistry exam was easy.

 “We’ll see how long we can go with this kind of mentality,” Golden said. “I think we can do it, but there’s going to be nights where we are only playing eight or nine guys. Once we get into that we’ll learn more about ourselves.”

It’s a long way till March. With so many new players and potential lineups, what you saw Monday won’t necessarily be what you see in January or tournament time.

But what you saw from both UF teams looked promising. Considering where the programs were not too long ago, that was worth a celebratory shower.

David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley

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