Florida Gators women's basketball team gearing up for SEC Tournament game on Thursday

Graham Hall
Gator Sports

With the regular season in the books, the Florida women’s basketball team has turned its attention to the future. 

The Gators inked Kelly Rae Finley to a five-year deal Monday as the program’s head coach, marking the conclusion of her nearly eight-month tenure as UF’s interim coach. For many, it seemed like a foregone conclusion in the wake of the team’s success, though the deal wasn’t finalized until after Finley discussed the program’s upcoming business and immediate priority: the Southeastern Conference Tournament. 

No. 5 seeded Florida returns to the court Thursday against No. 13-seed Vanderbilt, with tip-off scheduled for 25 minutes following the conclusion of No. 8 Arkansas’s noon battle with No. 9 Missouri. 

Following defeat at LSU on Feb. 20, the Gators (20-9, 10-6 SEC) suffered losses to a pair of unranked opponents in the Commodores and Mizzou in the final week of the season, leading Finley to call for a return to normalcy after a three-game skid.

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Kelly Rae Finley: 'I feel very confident in our team'

Rather than suffering from a lack of focus, high expectations amid much acclaim led to some uncharacteristic play down the stretch for the Gators. Adversity simply tends to come with success, and it’s the response that’s key. 

“It’s part of the season. If you told me that we’d finish fifth in the SEC and have some of the wins that we’d have, I would tell you that would be a success. The foundation isn’t crumbling — there’s nothing broken,” Finley said. “I feel very confident in our team.” 

The reality is Florida’s ceiling has increased both with each impressive victory and each loss in league play; lofty goals and yearning for redemption can result in a pressure to perform. Ahead of the jaunt to Nashville for the SEC Tournament, Finley doesn’t want the Gators to lose sight of the joy in competing. 

“I think that it’s the competition that is fun, right? It’s, OK, here’s my one-on-one matchup, and here’s the team matchup, and it’s us versus them. And understanding that keeps the fun in the game,” Finley said. “You want to play to put your best foot forward, right, and if the opponent beats you on that day, then fine, so be it, but you have to make them beat you. You don’t just walk up and lose.” 

Florida Gators head coach Kelly Finley smiles as her team leaves the court during the first half against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Billy Donovan Court at Exactech Arena in Gainesville, FL on Thursday, February 17, 2022.

Over the final week of the season, Finley saw the pressure creep in. The stretch wasn’t exactly uncharacteristic — it was reminiscent of how Florida looked prior to league play. Or during last season’s 11-13 finish, when Finley, 36, was still an assistant coach. 

It can’t continue if the Gators hope to avoid a fourth consecutive loss, and the team knows it. Hiding from the shortcomings instead of addressing what went wrong wouldn’t work.

“I thought that we, in the last two games, played with a tightness that we haven’t played with all season, except for early on,” Finley said. “And I think you need to acknowledge that and then move through that.”

How will the Gators respond when those 40 minutes on the clock determine whether you move on or go home? 

There’s no blueprint or script to predict the team’s approach Thursday. 

Finley isn’t overly concerned, however. She’s practicing what she preaches — don’t lose the joy in competing. 

When the Gators take the court Thursday, Florida’s newly announced head coach knows the best chance for success on an elevated stage may be to find the ideal balance between playing carefree and careful. 

“The pressure that comes with it is the one-and-done, but that’s also what there is to enjoy about it. You get an opportunity to give it your best shot one time, and that one day the better team wins and moves on, and the lesser team doesn’t. So there’s a focus and a looseness that you need to have come tournament time,” Finley said, “and that will be fun to see our team in that environment, because we haven’t been in that environment. It’ll be a new experience, and I’m eager to see how we compete.”