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Despite falling to FSU, Florida women’s basketball has a path forward

The fourth quarter that had been Florida’s roost to rule betrayed the Gators in Tallahassee. But that doesn’t mean that Florida can’t grow from it.

Syndication: Gator Sports Matt Pendleton / USA TODAY NETWORK

If I had to guess, Florida’s women’s basketball team probably entered the fourth quarter of its game against Florida State on Wednesday night with significant confidence — even though it was trailing.

See, the Gators had erased cut an FSU lead of 12 points at halftime and 13 in the third quarter to tie the game in the third — and even though the Seminoles had rebuilt a six-point edge by the end of the quarter, Florida’s first two games of the season had featured dominant finishes, with the Gators crushing Florida A&M 22-8 and UNC Asheville 24-7 in those respective fourth quarters.

But the Seminoles flipped the script in Tallahassee, using a 14-1 run to begin the fourth to put the Gators away in what would end as a 92-77 victory for the home team. Freshman sensation Ta’niya Latson continued her scalding start to the year for FSU, pouring in 32 points to move the Seminoles to 4-0 in Brooke Wyckoff’s first year as permanent head coach and marking them as a team to watch this fall.

Further, it’s the first strong sign that FSU’s program may ultimately make a successful transition from the legendary Sue Semrau. That was far from assured: After a rocky couple of years that featured Semrau taking a single-season leave of absence to care for her mother during a recovery from ovarian cancer and Wyckoff coaching an uneven season as interim head coach in her stead in 2020-21, Semrau returning (with Wyckoff moving back to associate head coach) in 2021-22 only to have her worst season in a decade, and Semrau ultimately retiring and leaving the program to Wyckoff last March, the Seminoles could well have regressed to the mediocrity of the last two years instead of the excellence of most of Semrau’s run, which featured perennial NCAA Tournament bids and a couple of Elite Eight runs.

FSU also appears to have found its footing by finding its identity. The Seminoles are playing at a pace beyond brisk this fall, and scored over 110 points — practically unheard of in women’s college basketball — in two exhibitions and an opener. Closer, single-digit contests in which FSU shot poorly from the field against Kent State and Georgia State — missing 40 shots against the Golden Flashes and a staggering 49 against the Panthers — might have shaken some faith in that approach.

Against Florida, it was the Gators who missed 39 shots, while FSU made 34 of 67. Latson — who has gotten up 84 shots in four games, more than twice of any of her teammates — mustered a 12-for-21 performance from the floor that upped her scoring average to 28.3 points per game on the season, fifth-best in Divison I.

So that’s FSU’s identity, stamped and sealed: The Seminoles are going to go fast, get shots, and make sure a gifted scorer gets a lot of them. It’s worked well so far.

And while that may seem like a lot of words of praise for FSU in a Florida blog’s post on the game, it’s because that identity and the Seminoles’ adherence to it should probably be guidance for Kelly Rae Finley this season.

It’s obvious that Florida’s original plan for this season would have included Zippy Broughton, who announced a season-ending injury in October. But it’s also possible — though far, far from a lock — that Florida might have been hoping to get still more from Kiki Smith, who teamed with Broughton in a menacing backcourt in 2021-22, had Smith both not suffered her own serious injury during the 2022 SEC Tournament and opted to return to what could have been a serious SEC contender instead of heading to the WNBA. Smith would probably have been a candidate to get a seventh year of eligibility to play college basketball thanks to her combination of injuries and the blanket eligibility derived from the NCAA’s eligibility grants for players related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, with Smith going pro and being drafted by the Connecticut Sun — for whom she did not appear in the 2022 season, rehabbing while the Sun finished as WNBA runners-up for the second time in four years and fourth time in team history — Finley retooled a roster around the idea that Broughton could step up into Smith’s kicks, teaming with Nina Rickards to do much of the same dual-guard work that made Florida formidable a year ago.

That plan was dashed before the season even started — but long after Finley had any meaningful chance to rebuild her roster. (The successful recruitment of five-star prospect Laila Reynolds, who might carry more hope and hype upon her arrival to Gainesville than any recruit in program history, is sadly no panacea for this season.)

Good thing, then, that she seemingly already created a new strength for Florida through the transfer portal, specifically in the form of Leilani Correa and Kirsten “KK” Deans.

Through three games — in which neither Correa (formerly of St. John’s) nor Deans (West Virginia) has recorded a start — the twosome occupies the top two slots among all Gators in scoring, field goals, threes, and steals. Together, they’re averaging 36 points per contest — which they improved against FSU, pairing for 45 off the bench to outscore Florida’s starters by 13 — and providing more punch than Smith and Broughton did a year ago.

Florida’s third-leading scorer is also an import. Purdue transfer Ra’Shaya Kyle has scored in double figures in all three games for the Gators, and while she underperformed her 2021-22 meeting with FSU (13 points, 10 rebounds) on Wednesday, struggling to a 2-for-7 night from the field, Kyle figures to be the Gators’ starting center all season.

Through three games, admittedly a tiny sample, it would seem like Correa and Deans have made cases to join her in the starting five. While there’s probably some benefit to both coming off the bench, it’s also true that they have significantly outperformed starters Rickards and Alberte Rimdal — who have made half as many threes combined (three) as Correa (six) has on her own ... putting them seven threes behind Deans on the year.

If you’re looking for a case to maintain the status quo, you can probably point to what Rickards and Rimdal have excelled at: Ball security. Both have both been better at avoiding turnovers than either Correa or Deans, with assist-to-turnover ratios of 2-to-1 or better. And Deans coughing it up eight times on Wednesday — part of Florida’s 25-turnover night — certainly takes some of the shine off a 23-point, six-rebound, five-assist line.

But to put things plainly, Florida lost on Wednesday in no small part because it struggled to score with its starting five against FSU. Forward Jordyn Merritt was the only non-transfer Gator in the starting five to reach double digits, just hitting the plateau at 10 — and while Rickards and Rimdal did a fine job of assisting without committing turnovers (nine assists, four turnovers combined), more than half of their assists were to Correa or Dean.

Correa and Dean, meanwhile, combined for their own nine assists — while also getting more than 20 points each.

Perhaps this is just a slow start for the Gators’ returnees in the backcourt. Last year does suggest that pattern.

Rickards didn’t get into double figures in back-to-back games until January before showing some consistency and upping her game in SEC play, while Rimdal was streakier still, exploding for three straight games of 14 or more points in January but never again getting to double digits.

Rimdal finding her confidence as a shooter would clearly be a boon: After making five treys in back-to-back games in that January spurt, she did not make multiple threes again in 2021-22. While she made two against UNC Asheville, hurdling that obstacle, those are her only makes of this season during a woeful 2-for-12 start from distance.

Rickards, meanwhile, is just 1-for-5 from three — but, more importantly, isn’t getting to the line like she did down last year’s stretch run, shooting just two free throws over three games. Last year, she shot 85 percent from the line and shot 52 free throws, making a couple of contributions there per contest a fairly reliable part of her game.

Maybe the only way for Rickards and Rimdal to improve is to play through these struggles, rather than by starving them of oxygen and opportunity. If Finley wants to persist with her current rotation, she at least has a chance to do it now and not wreck the season, as Florida plays a softer stretch of its non-conference schedule to close November — there are “neutral”-site clashes in St. Petersburg with Green Bay and Houston, solid but not insurmountable squads, next week — than it does in December, when it will visit Dayton and Miami and meet Oklahoma in the Jumpman Invitational in Charlotte.

But FSU being able to pull away because it fed Latson — far and away its best performer all night, and also the scorer of 11 fourth-quarter points, highlighted by book-ending three-point plays — is the sort of result that ought to teach Florida a lesson about process.

The path forward might require a couple of Gators to step forward, and others to step back.