The 2021-22 season for the Florida Gators women’s basketball program comes to an end after being bounced out of the NCAA Tournament, Saturday. In their first trip to March Madness since 2016, the Gators lose to UFC 69-52. With the win, the Knights move on to the next round to face off against No.2 seed UConn.
Florida Gators (21-11, 10-6 SEC)
This was a special season for newly hired Head Coach Kelly Rae Finley and the Gators as they clawed themselves up to as high as No.15 in the AP Poll. However, the team the Gators faithful admired during the course of the year was unrecognizable against the Knights on Thursday.
In fact, it was actually out of the hands of Coach Finley.
At the beginning of conference play, star guard Lavender Briggs left the program. Luckily, veteran guard Kiara Smith and others picked up the workload to help the Gators to a top-five finish in the SEC.
However, Smith went down with an apparent knee injury late during the SEC tournament against Vanderbilt. Also, losing Jordyn Merritt prior to the NCAA Tournament was a crushing blow.
To pile on, moments before the half, Faith Dut went down with an ankle injury and was seen on the bench with crutches for the remainder of the game.
With a depleted starting lineup, overcoming a 26-3 UCF squad was just too much for Florida. Guard Zippy Broughton, who took on the point guard duties after Smith’s injuries, said this experience playing post-season basketball will do wonders for the program in the future.
A Rough Shooting Night
It was a clear sign early on that Smith was missed, especially on the offensive side. The Gators fell behind in the first half by double digits. As a team, Florida shot 26.7 percent from the floor and made only one three-point basket. As a result, the Knights held a commanding 34-23 lead entering second-half action.
In the second half, the Gators found themselves in the thick of it, cutting the Knights deficit to four points. A Nina Rickards basket put the Knights lead at 41-37 with 3:17 left in the third period. From there, UCF was able to end the quarter on an 8-0 run and the Gators never came close again.
Broughton talked about the third quarter stretch:
Florida’s shooting woes continued in the second half as they shot 4-for-20 from behind the arc for the game.
Rickards led Florida with 17 points while Broughton chipped in with 12. Brittney Smith led UFC in scoring with a game-high 26 points and six rebounds.
In retrospect, some may say this season was a success for these young ladies. Although losing key pieces down the stretch, the chemistry and love among one another was noticeable throughout the course of the regular season. So much so, coach Finley was able to have the interim removed and signed a five-year deal to be at the helm. Finley led the Gators to a 20 win season in just her first year.
Finley says even though she is sad Saturday is the last time she will be able to coach this group of young ladies however, the future does look bright for the program.
As Finely and the Gators look to get back to the drawing board, expect Broughton and Rickards to continue to take the ball-handling and leadership responsibilities next year.