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Gators women taking SEC by storm. So why is their coach still an ‘interim’?

Kelly Rae Finley has led UF to a 20-win season and No. 17 national ranking.
 
Florida interim women's basketball coach Kelly Rae Finley has led the Gators to a 20-win season and No. 17 national ranking.
Florida interim women's basketball coach Kelly Rae Finley has led the Gators to a 20-win season and No. 17 national ranking. [ ALAN YOUNGBLOOD | AP ]
Published Feb. 18, 2022

While presiding over the most improbable season in Gator women’s basketball history, coach Kelly Rae Finley has seen a smorgasbord of superlatives attached to her job performance.

Surreal. Spectacular. Unprecedented. Unmatched.

Yet the one adjective still most closely associated with Finley is the one that, at this point, seems least befitting.

Interim.

“(The Gators) are darn good, and they’re playing good,” LSU Hall of Fame coach Kim Mulkey, winner of three national titles at Baylor, said after her team’s one-point loss to UF last month.

“And I don’t understand why that girl (Finley) hasn’t been named the head coach. What else does she have to do to be named the head coach? What are you waiting on, for somebody else to hire her?”

In the span of one winter, Finley, 36, has evolved into the greatest interim coach in Gators lore since Galen Hall led the football team to an SEC title (later vacated) after replacing the embattled Charley Pell three games into the 1984 season.

Tabbed to oversee the program last summer upon the ugly departure of predecessor Cameron Newbauer (accused of mistreating players and creating a toxic atmosphere), Finley has led UF (20-6, 10-3 SEC) to its first 20-win season in six years.

Picked to finish 11th in the league’s preseason coaches poll, the Gators enter Sunday’s rematch against LSU ranked 17th nationally. Their 76-67 win Thursday against Arkansas was their fifth in a row and 10th in their last 11 games.

Perhaps even more astonishing: The recent surge came after junior guard Lavender Briggs — arguably the team’s best player — was sidelined by a stress fracture in her left shin. Briggs later announced she was transferring to Maryland.

“They all play to their strengths better than anybody in our league,” Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors said earlier this week.

“(Finley) has done an amazing job since Lavender Briggs went to the transfer portal. And I know Kelly just a little bit, I’m just assuming from watching on the outside that she clearly told everybody what she needed from them and has held them accountable to a level that is very, very high.”

So why hasn’t a coach who has proven a custom fit for the job been allowed to snip off the interim label like a clothing tag? Widespread belief is, athletic director Scott Stricklin wants Finley and her club to remain focused on the season.

Finley, already seasoned in terms of coachspeak, seems to concur.

“It’s not something that is on our radar,” the Minneapolis native said after Thursday night’s win.

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“With our team, our focus always has been each other, and it will continue to be each other. When we talk about our team, we talk about our staff and our student-athletes included as one. We all deserve each other’s best effort, with almost like a tunnel vision to serving each other as best we can so that we can perform our best together.”

Soon after the season, though, Stricklin is expected to sign Finley for the long haul. Thing is, that season appears destined to stretch longer than even the most optimistic fan could’ve dreamed.

Related: March Madness to commence in bay area's back yard

Finley’s ensemble — devoid of a top-10 scorer or rebounder in the SEC — already has defeated five ranked teams in the same season for the first time since 2006. It has proven effective playing a methodical or Mach-speed tempo, winning games scoring in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s.

“I don’t know that there’s another team in America that’s done that,” Neighbors said.

On Thursday, they held the Razorbacks — who lead the league in made 3-pointers — to a 1-for-13 night from long range. In last week’s 73-64 win at Mississippi State, they held the Bulldogs to five 3-pointers, half their per-game average.

The statistical balance is staggering. Nine players average at least 10 minutes, but none average even 15 points a game. No one averages six rebounds, but five average at least 3.8. Leading this collaboration is 5-foot-10 senior Kiara Smith, who leads the team in scoring (14.8 ppg) and assists (4.5) and ranks second in rebounding (5.4).

“They don’t do anything they aren’t capable of doing,” Neighbors said. “They play together. They play for each other.”

All byproducts, by any objective account, of solid coaching.

“I don’t know her,” Mulkey said. “But I know what I see.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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