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UF women's basketball showcasing competitive nature as preseason camp commences

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Florida guard Lavender Briggs (3) is one of four returning starters for the Gators this season.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic era has led to countless issues pertaining to the development of athletes across every level, Florida Gators women’s basketball coach Cameron Newbauer won't let the pandemic prevent the program from continuing to rise. 

And based off early workouts, the Gators haven’t lost their eagerness to improve on last season’s 15-14 regular-season finish either.

“We’ve got people that are more hungry, we’ve got younger players now that are talented, so that naturally puts some — I don’t want to say pressure, but you’ve got to bring your A-game every day, because people are competing for minutes,” Newbauer said. “I think we’ll play a little faster, I think we’ll play a little differently as well.”

The Gators are coming off their best season since the 2015-16 campaign and Newbauer’s squad will look to maintain momentum in preseason camp prior to opening the season Nov. 25. 

Florida will have 42 days to conduct no more than 30 practices — considering UF led the conference last season in games played by underclassmen, Newbauer expects the team to make leaps and bounds in that time, especially now that the Gators are fully entrenched in his system.

“It’s been neat to see the competitive nature day-in and day-out, with the number of new kids,” Newbauer said. “We also have a lot more players now that want to win, and I think it’s taken us a lot of time to get here, and it’s something that’s been bred from our upperclassmen.”

In the 2019-20 campaign, Newbauer’s third season in Gainesville, the Gators registered multiple top-25 victories for the first time since he arrived by way of Belmont University, including a 70-62 win at No. 13 Kentucky and a 83-80 win over No. 22-ranked Arkansas. 

Much of the scoring load was carried by the team’s highly recruited freshman, Lavender Briggs, who’s one of four returning starters for the Gators this season.

Briggs led the Gators in scoring with 15.0 points per game, which resulted in her being named to the All-SEC Freshman Team by season’s end. Much to the chagrin of UF’s opponents this season, Newbauer said Briggs has added to her game in the offseason. 

“Her shot and her handles have gotten tighter and quicker. This is one of those people that really went out and put in a lot of time during COVID. Everybody says they did that, but not everybody you see it translate in workouts,” Newbauer said. “She’s scoring in different ways, and has really taken on the mindset of ‘what are my weaknesses, and how do I get better in those areas’, and she owned that. But I think the biggest thing I’ve seen is the competitive maturity. She understands ‘if I want to be great, I need people to come at me in practice every day’.”

Yet Briggs, a former five-star recruit, won’t be expected to carry the scoring load on her own this season, as the Gators have added five new contributors this season, led by fellow five-star prospect Jordyn Merritt. Ranked the No. 27 overall recruit in the incoming class by ESPN, Merritt is UF’s highest-ranked signee in seven years, and the 6-foot-3 forward is expected to make a noticeable impact from the jump this season — however, she’s far from the only sizable underclassmen in the paint for the Gators. Sophomore forward Faith Dut is listed at 6-foot-4, as is freshman forward Floor Toonders, although Newbauer says they’re among several players who appear to be taller than their listed height. 

“Faith looks like she might have grown a little bit, so we’ve definitely got size,” Newbauer said. “They’ve all got the ability to spread the floor and shoot threes. Floor Toonders is somebody that has a chance to be special because of her skillset and ability.”

But it’s not just a youth movement in Florida’s basketball complex. Redshirt senior Kiara ‘Kiki’ Smith enters her final season in Gainesville as a returning starter after averaging 11.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game last season, and Newbauer expects the 5-foot-10 distributor to once again be an all-around contributor. For Florida to take the next step, they’ll need an all-around effort from the entire roster as well.

“She’s one of those players that can be a facilitator, can be a scorer, and she’s really morphed herself to be what we need in the moment. Far surpassed anything we thought she was going to be when we recruited her,” Newbauer said of Smith, who joined the program after two seasons at ASA College (NY). “Her coaches told us how tough she was, we knew she was going to be a competitor, but the level that she competes at, with her energy, and now taking on a greater, different leadership role, where now she’s not afraid to get after some people, it’s been neat to see. But she also has that switch where she can put her arm around you, joke with you and really nurture you.”