Florida women's basketball team can go far in 2022-23: 'They really act like sisters'

Ainslie Lee
Gator Sports

There's no interim tag in front of Kelly Rae Finley's name heading into this season — and rightfully so after she led the Florida women's basketball team to its most successful season in recent memory last year. 

After guiding the Gators to a 21-11 finish in 2021-22 — the Gators' first 20-win season since 2015-16 — Finley, 37, was handed the keys to the UF program in February. 

And after adding six new faces to the roster, it was like Finley was handed the keys to a car assembled on Planet Mars. No one knew what this team was going to look like or how it was going to operate. 

But on Wednesday night from Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center, we got our first look as the Gators hosted Saint Leo in a preseason matchup. 

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And if all goes as planned, the way Florida looked as it beat the Lions, 110-46, will be similar to how the Gators look all season. 

Here are takeaways from our first look at Florida women's basketball.

Everyone gets a piece of the pie

The Gators were hit with a haymaker in the offseason when they lost graduate guard Zippy Broughton - the team's top returning scorer and assist leader - to a season-ending injury. 

 If Wednesday's showing was any indication, it won't be a problem replacing her offensive production. 

Florida had seven players score in double figures against Saint Leo. 

"To have seven in double figures is pretty special," Finley said. "I think it shows what we're capable of on the offensive end of the floor."

Junior center Ra Shaya Kyle led the way with 16 points. Sophomore guard Alberte Rimdal finished with 15 points after going 3-for-8 from the three-point mark. 

Meanwhile, Nina Rickards (14 points), Leilani Correa (13), Frieda Bühner (10), KK Deans (10) and Jordyn Merritt (10) all scored in double digits. 

"I am very, very blessed by a team that sees the value in celebrating each other," Finley said. "And it's a heckuva lot more fun that way. We feel like it can be anyone's night on the offense or the defense."

Bühner shines in first outing as a Gator

After playing for her national team in Germany in the summer, Bühner didn't arrive in Gainesville until the fall, which is later than most freshmen. 

However, that didn't seem to hinder the Gators' rookie. 

"We start running different sets into actions and Frieda knows everything," Finley joked. "Doggone, she knows the whole playbook."

Bühner came off the bench in Wednesday's exhibition and immediately had impact all over the floor. The freshman tallied 10 points, seven rebounds, a pair of assists and a pair of steals in 15 minutes of play. 

"She worked every single day," sophomore Taliyah Wyche said. "Frieda is never in her room. She's always, always in the gym. ... She just works."

Chemistry key for Finley's squad

Going back to the car from Planet Mars analogy — this vehicle has been pieced together quickly by partsfrom all over. 

Bühner comes from Germany, fellow freshman Myka Perry comes from Oklahoma, senior Aliyah Matharu comes from the University of Texas, Kyle comes from Purdue, Dean comes from West Virginia University and Correa comes from St. Johns. 

In summary, six of Florida's 15 players are new to Gainesville and new to the program. 

Fortunately for the Gators, nurturing team chemistry is Finley's forte. 

Taliyah Wyche says the team is rarely apart and that Finley "has the team chemistry straight." 

"They really act like sisters," Finley said. "Every day isn't the best day. But at the end of the day, what I was encouraged by seeing tonight, you know, 'I might be able to say that about my sister, but you can't say that as the opponent.'

"We're really growing in that way, we're growing in our communication and their connection. And as the season goes on, I know that's something that we're really committed to showcasing. And we believe that's a skill that we have that sets us apart from other teams."

The Gators open their regular season on Monday, hosting Florida A&M at 5:30 p.m., followed by Florida's men's basketball team opening its season against Stony Brook at 8 p.m.