Florida Gators name Kelly Rae Finley permanent women’s basketball coach, removing interim tag

By Adam Silverstein
February 28, 2022
Florida Gators name Kelly Rae Finley permanent women’s basketball coach, removing interim tag
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Image Credit: Hannah White / UAA

The Florida Gators made a move that was a long time coming Monday in naming Kelly Rae Finley the program’s 11th removing basketball coach. Finley, who served as Florida’s interim coach this season, led the team to a 20-9 (10-6 SEC) record, matching its best mark in more than a decade.

“Kelly Rae is such a talented young coach whose natural poise, intelligence and relational abilities have all been on display during this remarkable Gators women’s basketball season,” said athletic director Scott Stricklin in a statement. “I’m excited that she’ll have the opportunity to build off of this year’s success and that future Gators will be able to benefit from her leadership the way this team has.”

Added Finley: “I’m humbled to be given the opportunity to lead our women’s basketball program, and I believe that together we will be able to achieve great things. I’m forever grateful for our staff and student-athletes for their dedication to growing this program and I look forward to continuing on this journey.”

Finley’s rise and the Gators’ success has been one of the top stories across the sport this year. Though Florida did fall apart with three straight losses to end the regular season, that came on the heels of a 10-1 record through 11 games with UF’s lone loss in that stretch coming to No. 1 South Carolina.

The Gators are 5-4 against AP Top 25 teams this season with five such wins against ranked teams for the first time since 2005-06.

Finley has led Florida to its most wins (20) since the 2015-16 season, and the Gators have picked up 10 SEC wins for just the fourth time in program history. They also nothced six SEC road wins for the first time since 2000-01.

While the Gators were not ranked inside the AP Top 25 for much of the season, they reached a season-best No. 15 ranking last week at sit at No. 23 entering the SEC Tournament with a double bye. Florida is poised to appear in the NCAA Tournament ofr the first time since that same 2015-16 season.

Finley 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, and she is a top candidate to be named 2022 SEC Coach of the Year.

Fans have been wondering what the holdup might have been to get Finely signed, particularly given the team’s play over the last couple of months. That’s tough to say.

It’s possible that Finley and Stricklin agreed to terms a while ago but wanted to wait until the end of the season for the announcement. It’s also possible that her ties to the prior coaching staff were an issue.

Stricklin had plenty to sort through as he determined what direction to take the program. The Cameron 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 failed to comment extensively on those issues.

However, Stricklin did ultimately elevate Finely to the interim role, and he had eight months to evaluate the way she has run the program and treated the players. The way the Gators have responded to Finley 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.

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 may well be the missing piece, and making her a permanent part of the program was a no-brainer.

“Within this program, we strive to create a sustainable and competitive environment that encourages collaboration, fosters creativity and empowers our young women to achieve growth and success during their time at Florida and beyond,” Finley said.

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