Former state prep star leads Florida women’s basketball turnaround

Former state prep star leads Florida women's basketball turnaround

Thanks for checking out Basketball Across Minnesota, my weekly look at some of the state’s best hoops stories, from preps to pros. —Marcus Fuller

When Kelly Rae Finley saw attention grow on her impressive turnaround with the Florida women’s basketball program this season, she made a habit of reminding people of her Midwestern roots.

“It’s always good to remember where you started,” Finley said. “I’m just a girl from Minnesota.”

The 36-year-old Minneapolis native and former Breck star took over a Gators team embroiled in scandal last summer under former coach Cameron Newbauer and coming off a 12-14 season. Under Finley as interim coach, they have surpassed 20 wins and are in contention for an NCAA Tournament bid.

It has people across the country, and not just in the Twin Cities, recognizing a rising star in the coaching ranks.

She is among 15 candidates for National Coach of the Year honors, a list that includes league peers like South Carolina’s Dawn Staley and LSU’s Kim Mulkey.

Staley and Mulkey publicly endorsed Florida’s release of the interim tag on Finley.

Finley celebrated the life-changing news on Monday afternoon with his staff and players. Bear hugs in the middle of the Gators locker room were followed by cheers and selfies.

A humble Finley spoke earlier today about her time as a young basketball player in Minnesota. She won a state title at Breck School while playing for her father, Ray Finley, who won three state titles, including at Providence Academy and Blake School.

“Growing up in the Minnesota basketball community was really, really special,” Finley said. “There are a lot of talented student-athletes coming from there, and a lot of coaches now. It’s really fun.”

Winning is fun. That hadn’t happened much with the Gators before with five straight losing seasons. The future now looks bright under Finley’s leadership as head coach. Florida was ranked nationally for the first time since 2016. A team chosen to finish 11th in the SEC entered the conference tournament on Thursday with a No. 5 seed – the Gators are solidly in the expected field of the NCAA tournament even after a three-game losing streak to end the regular season.

“What a cool year,” Finley said. “We had ups and downs like any team. But I’m really proud of where we are. It’s been a tough week [last week]. We didn’t get the results we wanted, but I know we grew. It’s better to have these games before the tournament.”

Finley, who moved from assistant to interim coach in July, proved with five-game winning streaks in January and February that she was Florida’s best long-term head coach.

But it all started with her barely having to keep a program boiling. Players have alleged a toxic culture and abusive behavior under Newbauer, who resigned last summer.

Florida’s losing streak to end the regular season was minimal compared to the adversity the team faced following the departure of Newbauer and the loss of second-team All-SEC forward Lavender Briggs. , who was transferred after suffering a season-ending injury in January.

A highlight for the Gators earlier this season was an 84-59 win over No. 7 Tennessee, which sparked five straight wins in February and a ranking as high as 15th in the Associated Press poll. They have also beaten five ranked opponents, the most in 16 years.

After playing at Northwestern and Colorado State in the early 2000s, Finley served as an assistant coach at Harvard, Colorado and Arizona before joining the Gators in 2017. She’s had winning cultures before, but her players have also achieved a high level of success for the first. time. And she looks forward to them responding better as the fight becomes more of an expectation for Florida basketball.

“As a whole season, I just couldn’t be more proud of our team,” Finley said. “Of their efforts and their commitment to each other and their commitment to bettering each other.”

The start of the playoffs this week means Draft Sunday is fast approaching on March 13. hometown can show their love and support for women’s basketball with the Final Four this year.

“The fan support is outstanding,” Finley said. “And I would expect nothing less at the Final Four this season. It will be fun for everyone to see.”

Fuller’s Five

Five Minnesotans who stood out this week:

Tyler Wahl, Wis.

The former Lakeville North star and junior forward led the Badgers with 19 points, five steals and two blocks in Tuesday’s win over No. 8 Purdue to secure a share of the Big Ten title.

Sara Scalia, Gopher

The Stillwater product tied teammate Kadi Sissoko with 32 points in Sunday’s win for the Gophers over Penn State. Scalia’s 101 threes are tied for second most in program history.

Prince Aligbe, Minnehaha Academy

A 6-7 senior and Boston College rookie, Aligbe had 36 points in a win over Holy Family and the state’s 2023 top big man Boden Kapke on Tuesday.

Brooke Olson, Minnesota Duluth

The senior forward averaged 19.7 points in three NSIC tournament games, buoyed by 21 points to lead the Bulldogs to their second straight conference tournament title on Tuesday against St. Cloud State.

Isaac Asuma, Cherry

The sophomore guard became Cherry’s all-time leading scorer with a triple-double of 36 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists. He now has more than 1,800 points in his career.

Statistically speaking

28.8 — Stillwater junior Max Shikenjanski and Minnehaha Academy senior Prince Aligbe were tied for state points per game for the lead on Wednesday.

46 — Northern Michigan guard Max Bjorklund had 9-for-10 threes and 14-for-15 free throws, including 40 second-half points against Ferris State.

2 — Number of seconds remaining when Dakota County Technical College’s Janeir Harris scored the game-winning third bank to win the Region 13 championship. Also earned top 10 “SportsCenter” game honors.

700 — Number of coaching career victories for Anoka-Ramsey men’s basketball coach Ron Larson in a playoff win last week.

2010 — Number of career points for Cretin-Derham Hall senior Tre Holloman, who passed ex-Gopher Daniel Oturu on the program’s all-time goalscoring list on Wednesday.

Games to watch

South St. Paul at Mahtomedi boys, Friday, 7 p.m.

The Packers are 25-0, but their closest league game was a 62-58 win over Mahtomedi on January 5. And the Zephyrs were without junior Owen Carlson, who is averaging 22.9 points.

Orlando Magic vs. Toronto Raptors, Friday, 6:30 p.m.

Magical rookie goaltender Jalen Suggs and Raptors guard Gary Trent Jr. both represent Minnesota well in the NBA, but Trent’s team is still trying to make a playoff push.

This is the last episode of Basketball Across Minnesota this season. Enjoy tournaments. Thanks for reading, Marcus (@Marcus_R_Fuller on Twitter)