The start of the new era of Gator Women's basketball under interim head coach Kelly Rae Finley has been nothing short of fantastic so far. A Lady Gator team that was picked by the coaches to finish 11th in the conference before the season has been on a tear, winning seven of their last eight and currently sit 17-6 (7-3 SEC). So, as Gator fans, we are naturally left to wonder why Scott Stricklin has not taken the interim tag off of Finley?
It seems pretty simple to me. Finley has this team playing at a level of which we haven't seen in a long, long time from this program. Included in the Gators streak of winning seven of their last eight comes a win at #14 Georgia, a 25-point blowout win over #7 Tennessee, a win against #11 LSU and another 25-point blowout win at #23 Kentucky. The one loss in that eight-game stretch came to the #1 South Carolina Gamecocks at home, too, in a game in which the Gators had a valiant 4th quarter performance.
This all came, too, after the Gators lost one of their star players, junior guard Lavender Briggs, for the season with a stress fracture in her lower leg. She would announce days later that she would be transferring to Maryland at seasons end. In her place the Gators have been getting key contributions from everywhere. Leading the way for the Lady Gators is senior guard Kiara Smith, who is averaging 15.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.5 assists and a lockdown 2.5 steals per game as well as sophomore forward Jordyn Merritt, who herself is averaging 10.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.5 steals.
It's not just these two that have been heavily contributing for the Lady Gators though. Senior guard Zippy Broughton has been big, averaging 8.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.6 assists that includes a five game streak of scoring more than 10 points and a 28 point performance at #25 Texas A&M back in early January. These three have became the Gators sort of "big 3", providing the scoring spark every game and leading the Lady Gators to their fabulous 17-6 record.
Like I mentioned earlier, however, interim head coach Kelly Rae Finley has still not been hired as the full-time head coach. I'm just wondering why? The Lady Gators have had their best start to a season since the 2015-16 year, when they were bounced in the first round of the NCAA tournament as a 5-seed by 12th-seeded Albany. Now I'm not saying they are going to go and win it all this year, but I do think they have a chance to make a run as a dark horse in March. ESPN's bracketology currently has Florida as a 10-seed playing a 7-seeded Depaul team in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That is not a 10-seed that I would want to see early on in the tournament.
And it's not just the on-court results that are the reason that Finley deserves the full-time role. It's the fact that she has brought life and excitement into a program that has been an after thought amongst Gator fans for years. Just last Sunday, the largest crowd since Pat Summit's Tennessee Lady Vols came to town in 1999 packed the O'Dome to watch the Gators take on the #1 Gamecocks. On top of that, there has been a lot more buzz and attention throughout social media and press about this team. It's a buzz that hasn't been felt about this program in a long, long time and it has all came in less than one year under Finley.
I really don't think there is a debate to be made anymore, Kelly Rae Finley should be the leader of this program moving forward. She brought it back from the bottom of the abyss and turned the Lady Gators into a legit SEC team. The Gator Nation needs to continue supporting this team down the stretch of the season and I personally can't wait to see what they can do in March.