From the moment that abuse allegations about their former coach were published, the Florida Gators women’s basketball team has known that they would be trying to play out of that shadow in this 2021-22 season.
After a rocky start, the Gators have mostly been playing the sort of ball necessary to make that happen.
And on Thursday night, they played that way again — and earned one of the most shocking victories in program history, and maybe one of the most significant.
That was the prize seized as Florida throttled No. 7 Tennessee, 84-59, in the O’Dome, pouncing on the Lady Vols almost from the opening tip and never letting up.
Just four days after a pitiful start against No. 1 South Carolina — a three-point first quarter in which they made one shot and a 13-point first half that doomed what eventually became a spirited comeback attempt before it started — the Gators poured 25 points on Tennessee in the first period on Thursday, forcing a slew of live-ball turnovers and converting them into easy buckets, effectively outfoxing an athletic team renowned for its defense by sabotaging its offense to the point that the defense was irrelevant.
In the first quarter alone, Florida had 15 points off turnovers.
Tennessee, which led 3-0 but soon trailed 9-3 and 15-5, rallied from that 10-point deficit to be down 25-18 at the end of one and matched the Gators’ output in the second quarter for a 36-29 score at halftime. But the Vols also looked unusually rattled by Florida’s pressure, and went more than four minutes without scoring in the second quarter — failing to take advantage of the Gators also going nearly four minutes without a point or slice into a lead that got to 12 points until a 7-2 run into halftime.
And Florida had no interest in allowing Tennessee back into the game after the break. In less than a minute, Kiki Smith staked the Gators to a double-digit edge once again — and though Tennessee would get within seven points again at the 6:50 mark of the third quarter, Florida responded with an extended 18-4 run, regaining a double-digit advantage it would never relinquish with 4:23 to play and leading by 18 at quarter’s end.
The fourth quarter saw Tennessee — visibly frustrated all the way up to coach Kellie Harper — finally find a briefly effective defense in the form of a half-court press. It enabled a run to cut Florida’s lead to 15.
Exactly two minutes later, Florida once again led by 21.
The Gators would stretch their lead out to its final margin of 25 — for its first double-digit win over a program that it had only defeated four times in 58 tries, and a margin of victory that almost equaled its combined margin of victory (28 points) from the other four wins combined — against Tennessee reserves, with Harper having exhausted all options. Only graduate transfer Alexus Dye reached double-digit scoring for Tennessee, and just barely at 10 points; four Gators, led by Smith’s 25 points, reached that plateau, and Florida shot a sizzling 53.2 percent from the field.
In her postgame press conference, Harper admitted what was obvious to anyone watching: “This (was) a game that I don’t know that we were ever in.”
And for Florida to do that to Tennessee means plenty.
The story of Florida athletics has recently been one of great successes across so many sports that it generated an earned reputation as “the Everything School,” as I first dubbed it in this space in 2014. But the exception has always been women’s basketball.
Women’s basketball is the only Gators program to never win a conference title, and their dearth of sustained and/or postseason success has often been tolerated by fans who have had lower standards for a program thought to be a chronic underachiever.
When the Gators suddenly parted ways with Cameron Newbauer last summer, it was, at first, a stunning move not because of any allegations of abuse and misconduct but because Newbauer was sincerely thought by some to be slowly turning Florida around — despite posting a 46-71 record through four years, worst of any coach in program history.
This was my own sincerely-held belief, too. I thought the 2020-21 Gators were a team on the verge of breaking through and learning to win, one with an emerging leader, Smith, and talented players like Lavender Briggs and Jordan Merritt who could serve as her support.
Their records — 12-14 overall and 3-11 in SEC play — could have looked a lot better if they had finished more than a couple of games with flourishes. Florida lost five games by eight or fewer points on the year, and didn’t score its second win in a game decided by single digits until the SEC Tournament.
But Florida was also just not particularly competitive against the best teams on its schedule — it lost by 16 to South Carolina, 25 to Texas A&M, and 12 to Mississippi State over a three-game gauntlet run against ranked squads — and had a bad habit of fading after strong starts. The Gators led after their first quarter of play against Florida State, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee — all teams that would make the 2021 NCAA Tournament, the latter three as No. 3 or No. 4 seeds — and lost all four games, most notably giving up a 14-4 run to lose to Kentucky despite Smith exploding for a career-high 36 points.
By season’s end, Briggs — who broke her foot, ending her season, in February — and Smith had emerged as elite scorers, and one could see the promise of Merritt and Faith Dut and third scorer potential for Nina Rickards without squinting. Believing that the Gators would be better in 2021-22 was not hard; predicting that this team would definitely be better enough to make an NCAA Tournament would have taken some courage.
As it turns out, though, that team was fighting its own battles internally, with a coach that several former players have accused of wide-ranging abuse and mistreatment. And it threatened to fracture as early as last summer, with Briggs entering the transfer portal before removing herself from it.
Firing Newbauer seemingly allowed newly-installed interim head coach Kelly Rae Finley to step in and convince Briggs to remain a Gator — something that, per some of the Gators who alleged Newbauer’s abuse, was part of a pattern of her cleaning up Newbauer-created messes. And while one former player went so far as to call Finley “complicit” in the abuse, saying she “did everything she could to sweep it under the rug,” Florida’s framing cast her as “soothing,” and her elevation to interim head coach as a natural transition.
So when Florida’s early results this year — a closer-than-it-should-have-been season-opening win against Georgia State, an embarrassing blowout loss to Towson in which Florida allowed 37 points in the first quarter, a never-competitive loss to N.C. State — looked like those of a Newbauer team, it was easy for me to worry that Florida had not just failed to clean house appropriately after abuse but also sabotaged its most promising season in years by choosing the wrong steward for the program.
Since that 1-2 start, Florida is 15-4 — and has matched its four losses with four wins over ranked SEC teams and a thrashing of Florida State.
Two of the losses — a close one to a George Mason team that will likely fail to finish at .500 and an 18-point home loss to a good Ole Miss team even though Rebels superstar Shakira Austin made just five of 16 shots — are bad ones to one degree or another, and the loss to Towson remains an anchor despite the Tigers’ own 15-4 record.
Florida also missed what seemed at the time like its best chance at a big win in an early-January meeting with Georgia, squandering a seven-point fourth-quarter lead in part by committing five turnovers in a three-minute span. The Gators had led that game by as many as 16 points in the second quarter.
But Florida has bounced back from that, and from losing Briggs — who suffered a second season-ending injury in that game against Georgia and decided to transfer in its wake, picking perennial power Maryland as her destination — in a remarkable way. Since Briggs’s injury, Florida is 6-2, its losses coming to Ole Miss and South Carolina. And while Smith has predictably elevated her game, so have a rotating cast of Gators, including Merritt, Rickards, and Rutgers transfer Zipporah “Zippy” Broughton.
Smith is the most consistent one of the bunch, and has scored 19 or more points in six of Florida’s last seven games, with five outings of 22 or better. (Her season scoring average has gone from 11.8 points per game before the loss to Georgia to 15.1 as of Friday morning.) Her teammates have taken turns starring as sidekicks, with Rickards having three double-digit nights, Broughton pouring in 28 against Texas A&M and having five other double-digit outings, and Merritt chipping in four double-figure performances.
All four scoring in double figures against Tennessee had something to do with that result.
But it’s not just Florida’s front ranks that have been excellent of late. Danish freshman Alberte Rimdal has emerged as a dangerous — if sometimes curiously reluctant — shooter, and drained five threes against both Alabama and Kentucky in the middle of a three-game stretch of double-figure scoring. Dut, who has to compensate for strength disparities against many post players with excellent athleticism and shooting touch, had 14 points against Alabama and eight against Tennessee. And fierce freshman Taliyah Wyche — part of a twin tandem with her sister Tatyana — has done yeoman’s work as a reserve center, playing her short stints fearlessly enough to alter games.
And that sort of depth and breadth of contributions speaks to a team that has bought in and believes — one that is relishing competition and contribution rather than suffering through or shrinking from a difficult season.
Florida shot so poorly in its first quarter against South Carolina that it essentially had lost any realistic chance to win that game just 10 minutes into it, and yet it remained within 20 points at halftime. And in the six quarters since, Florida has not been outscored once — meaning that, over 16 straight quarters against ranked opponents, the Gators have won 11 and lost just four.
“We can stand with anybody,” Smith said, after Florida stood well apart from a Tennessee team that had been the No. 4 national seed in the first projection of the 2022 NCAA Tournament field for 40 minutes. “Just because of the past the University of Florida has, that has nothing to do with who we are now. It just says to me that, so what, we are enough.”
“We’re good,” said Finley, “but we don’t need everybody else to tell us we’re good.”
For a team that has had to read headlines and articles about what was done to it — something someone else did to define it — this season increasingly feels like the work of women who have snatched the tools to write their own narrative, and who will refuse to let their past be predictive or prologue.
For a program that has only rarely brimmed with confidence like it does right now, that’s a monumental shift in mentality — one that’s created a moment like few others in history.