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Nina Rickards is from Queens, N.Y., so you expect her to shoot you straight. Florida's senior guard didn't disappoint Tuesday at SEC Tipoff 23. How much did it mean to the Gators when Kelly Finley had the interim tag removed from her title on Feb. 28th?
"I think our game answers that question," Rickards said. "We weren't just playing for ourselves. We were playing for our coach."
Out of the turmoil that led to the departure of former head coach Cameron Newbauer, who resigned in July of 2021 citing personal reasons, came the best Florida season in six years. Finley was named the interim head coach, and job auditions rarely go much better.
Florida defeated five ranked opponents from the SEC for the first time since 2004, earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016 and reached the 20-win plateau for the first time since that same 2016 season. The Gators also climbed to No. 15 in the AP poll, their highest ranking since 2009.
When Florida Athletics Director Scott Stricklin told the team that Finley would be the team's permanent head coach, there was plenty of shouting, clapping and hugging in response. One of the first players to embrace Finley in what became a larger group hug was Faith Dut.
"We love Kelly," Dut said. "We love what she does for us. She's an amazing coach, person, friend. We trust her."
Finley said her goal after taking over as interim head coach was personal, but for the players, not for herself. "My focus was on creating a great experience, loving and embracing each other, lifting each other up."
Mission accomplished. The roster has a different look this season, with three transfers who earned all-conference honors at their previous schools, but the belief in Finley hasn't wavered.
"I was ecstatic" when UF erased the interim tag on the head coach, Rickards said. "I was so happy. But she was already my head coach."