Florida women’s basketball beats No. 14 Georgia, pressure grows for Gators to ink Kelly Rae Finley

By Adam Silverstein
February 6, 2022
Florida women’s basketball beats No. 14 Georgia, pressure grows for Gators to ink Kelly Rae Finley

Image Credit: Hannah White / UAA

What was once a nice turnaround story for a team entering the season amid significant internal turmoil has turned into one of the top narratives nationally across women’s college basketball. The Florida Gators on Sunday continued their torrid run through the SEC, winning their second straight game against an AP Top 25 opponent with a 54-51 victory over the No. 14 Georgia Bulldogs on the road in Athens, Georgia.

The Gators have now won seven of their last eight games with a 5-1 mark in that span against AP Top 25 teams. Florida’s lone loss came last Sunday to No. 1 South Carolina, but it followed that up with the most dominant win in program history against Tennessee as the Gators whipped the No. 7 Volunteers 84-59 on Thursday in Gainesville, Florida.

Interim head coach Kelly Rae Finley has already led Florida to its most wins (17) and SEC wins (seven) since the 2015-16 season. Astoundingly, that mark has been achieved despite UF still having six games remaining in league play before postseason competition begins. If Florida goes 4-2 in SEC play down the stretch, it will have its most wins since 2005-06 and most conference victories since 2000-01.

While the Gators are not ranked inside the AP Top 25 themselves, that should change when the new poll is released Monday. Florida (17-6, 7-3 SEC) is among the hottest programs in the nation and a sure-fire NCAA Tournament team that just passed the most difficult part of its schedule with flying colors. It would be UF’s first NCAA Tourney appearance since that same 2015-16 season.

There’s plenty of attention on the Gators’ hardwood success, but even more notable is that the University Athletic Association has not already moved towards removing the interim label and making Finley the program’s permanent head coach.

Finely is no fluke. She is currently in her fifth year at Florida following an eight-year career as an assistant at Harvard (her alma mater), Colorado and Arizona. What she’s already accomplished with the Gators is one of the best coaching jobs that the athletic department has ever seen. She also has the inside track to be named 2022 SEC Coach of the Year.

So, what’s the hold up?

In an expose on former head coach Cameron Newbauer — who was accused of creating an abusive and toxic environment throughout the program, allegations that led to his resignation in July 2021 — one player described Finley as being politic in her handling of his abuses. Rather than standing up for the players directly with Newbauer or indirectly with administration, she was said to have attempted to diminish the severity of his actions.

“Kelly did everything she could to sweep it under the rug. She covered for him, and she did damage control,” ex-player Cydnee Kinslow told The Alligator.

However, Newbauer’s abuses were not relegated to the players as he allegedly “spoke over Finley and treated her like she had no idea what she was talking about”, according to The Alligator, which noted he went so far as to make assistants cry on occasion. That speaks to an overall culture that may have led the assistant coaches to feel powerless.

“I don’t know if they were afraid of losing their job, but it wasn’t too much that they would say either, just because everybody was pretty much in the same boat [being abused],” said ex-player Sydney Searcy.

Athletic director Scott Stricklin has plenty to sort through as he determines what direction to take the program in its future. The Newbauer allegations have been the primary black mark on Stricklin’s tenure at Florida, far more than any more public squabbles some may have with him over the directions of the football and men’s basketball programs. He has failed to comment extensively on Newbauer’s tenure and whether the athletic department took necessary steps to address the numerous accusations, which were made privately before eventually being brought to the public.

However, Stricklin did elevate Finely to the interim role, a decision one would hope was made with thorough consideration. And he’s now had seven months to evaluate the way she has run the program and treated the players. Seven months, including two-thirds of the season, is hardly a drop in the bucket.

The way the athletes respond to Finley while in public — on the court before, during and after games — gives the appearance of a team not only comfortable with its leadership but thrilled with the success they are having on a game-by-game basis. If those relationships are the same in private — and there’s no indication otherwise — it’s hard to understand why a move has not yet been made.

Florida women’s basketball has been one of the least successful and most disappointing programs in university history. It has never won an SEC championship, and while it’s advanced to the NCAA Tournament 15 times in 28 years, it has never advanced further than the Elite Eight, which was accomplished just once in 1996-97.

Finley looks to be the missing piece. If all checks out on the back end and there are no concerns about Finley’s character, the Gators need to act swiftly to make her a permanent part of the program. They probably should have acted already.

Every day that passes without Stricklin taking action is simply wasted time.

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