Florida women's basketball focused on LSU and games ahead, not coach's interim status

Coach Kelly Rae Finley wants focus to be on her team, not on her job status

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
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Amid the program’s most impressive season since the Amanda Butler era, Florida’s interim women’s basketball coach Kelly Rae Finley isn’t keen on frequently discussing her job status. She knows it’s not in the best interest of the team as the No. 21-ranked Gators prepare to take on No. 12 LSU in Baton Rouge at 4 p.m.

“I told our team the other day, ‘I don’t want that to become the narrative,’ because it’s not about that,” she said. “I just want everything to be about celebrating our student-athletes.” 

Finley doesn’t want to become a distraction, whether it’s in the preparation or in UF’s contests, the latter of which have given the Gators plenty of reason to celebrate. 

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The Gators (20-6, 10-3 SEC) secured a 76-67 win Thursday in Gainesville over the Arkansas Razorbacks, led by a 19-point, seven-rebound, five-assist performance from the team’s leader in the backcourt, sixth-year guard Kiara “Kiki” Smith.

Following consecutive losses to begin conference play, Florida has suffered a lone defeat since Jan. 7, a 62-50 loss to No. 1-ranked South Carolina.

Florida Gators guard Kiara Smith (1) shoots a three-pointer during the first half Thursday against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Exactech Arena in Gainesville.

Kiara Smith continues to shine

A former transfer from ASA College who initially signed with Syracuse, Smith arrived at Florida prior to the 2018-19 season, when Finley was in her second year as an assistant coach.

It wasn't always this much fun. 

The Gators managed to win just eight games in Smith’s first year with the program — now, three seasons later, Florida has a realistic chance of losing fewer than eight games in the regular season. 

Though favorable outcomes haven’t changed Smith’s approach to the game. 

“She’s the same person she’s always been, she’s never changed,” Finley said of Smith, “and that’s what makes her so special and unique.”

A steady approach has led to Smith’s consistent improvement throughout her collegiate career. The only Gator to start every game thus far this season, Smith leads UF in points, rebounds, assists and steals. It may have taken some time, but Smith is now a catalyst in the team’s success on both ends, and someone who consistently lifts the play of her teammates.

“Her game has grown so much, and it’s because of who she is that her game has grown,” Finley continued. “Her work ethic is unmatched. Her attention to detail, her ability to trust and buy-in to what she’s being asked to do. The way she studies the game now, the way she sees the floor — I’m just so very proud of her. She’s earned everything that she’s gotten.” 

Finley attributes Smith’s steady approach to the emotional balance she’s displayed since arriving in Gainesville all those years ago; through the lows, she stayed the course and didn’t let her development wane. The Gators are now reaping the rewards of perseverance.

As the results have turned from undesirable to positive, Florida has received increased attention at both a local and national level. 

Coach Kelly Finley celebrates with her UF team after the game Thursday against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Exactech Arena in Gainesville.

LSU coach Kim Mulkey has publicly advocated for Finley to have the interim title removed. 

“I don’t understand why that girl hasn’t been named the head coach yet. What else does she have to do?” Mulkey said on Feb. 6. “What are you waiting on?”

As the Gators look to descend on LSU (22-4, 10-3),  the thoughts of UF’s coach when it comes to Smith’s approach seem rather applicable to her own situation. 

“It’s just her mindset and mentality that sets her apart,” Finley said. “No matter if you win or you lose, it’s about consistency in preparation, and believing that someday it’s going to pay off. And understanding that roles change, opportunities change, and you need to be prepared.”

SUNDAY

What: No. 21 Florida at No. 12 LSU

Where: Pete Maravich Assembly Center, Baton Rouge

When: 4 p.m. 

TV: SEC Network

Radio: AM-850, 98.1-FM

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