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Florida women take high road after NCAA makes them 10 seed

March 14, 2022 GMT
Florida head coach Kelly Rae Finley talks with Kiara Smith (1) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Vanderbilt at the women's Southeastern Conference tournament Thursday, March 3, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Florida head coach Kelly Rae Finley talks with Kiara Smith (1) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Vanderbilt at the women's Southeastern Conference tournament Thursday, March 3, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Florida head coach Kelly Rae Finley talks with Kiara Smith (1) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Vanderbilt at the women's Southeastern Conference tournament Thursday, March 3, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
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Florida head coach Kelly Rae Finley talks with Kiara Smith (1) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Vanderbilt at the women's Southeastern Conference tournament Thursday, March 3, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
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Florida head coach Kelly Rae Finley talks with Kiara Smith (1) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Vanderbilt at the women's Southeastern Conference tournament Thursday, March 3, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida coach Kelly Rae Finley could have ranted about her team’s placement in the NCAA women’s tournament, and likely no one would have blamed her.

The Gators (21-10) were handed a No. 10 seed and sent to Storrs, Connecticut to open tournament play against seventh-seeded UCF (25-3) on Saturday. If Florida wins, it likely would face 11-time national champion and host UConn, which has won 128 of its last 130 home games.

It had to feel like a punishment of sorts.

The Gators were as high as No. 15 in The Associated Press’ women’s college basketball poll two weeks ago after beating five ranked teams. The stretch included a win at Kentucky, which lost two more games than Florida in league play and got a No. 6 seed after upsetting top-ranked South Carolina in the SEC Tournament title game.

Finley didn’t rip the selection committee’s pairings. Instead, she took the high road.

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“A number is just a number,” she insisted Monday.

Finley and the Gators are sure to use the perceived slight as motivation as they prepare for their first NCAA appearance in six years. Disrespected? Maybe. Underdogs? No doubt.

“We love it,” she said. “That’s what we are. We want to earn everything. We’re not entitled. We’re not an entitled group. We won’t act like that. And you know, going into the NCAA Tournament, the mindset is no different.”

Most everyone expected the committee to dock Finley’s team to some degree. After all, the Gators lost four of their last five games as well as senior standout Kiki Smith. The first-team all-Southeastern Conference guard tore a ligament in her right knee late in a second-round game against Vanderbilt.

The Gators rallied after Smith’s injury a little more than a week ago to beat the Commodores 53-52. They lost in the quarterfinals to Mississippi the following day, with Smith serving as volunteer coach and lead cheerleader. Smith remains a key part of the team.

“Feel very confident in our team and our abilities and our ability to grow and adapt,” Finley said. “But that’s nothing different than what we’ve done all season, right? For this group, we feel fortunate that adjusting is one of our strengths and we look at it as a skill that we should be able to capitalize on, and we have a lot of different lineups that we can play.”

Finley hopes to get Jordyn Merritt back after the forward landed hard on her head against the Rebels and did not return.

Losing Smith one day and Merritt the next was just the latest issues for Florida, which dealt with the resignation of coach Cam Newbauer last summer amid allegations he verbally abused players and staff members. Finley was named the interim coach in the wake of the investigation and was charged with holding the team together.

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She did way more, even after leading scorer Lavender Briggs was lost for the season due to a shin injury in January and ended up in the transfer portal a few days later. Between the departure of Newbauer and Briggs and then the season-ending injury to Smith, getting a 10 seed and landing in what looks like a tough draw were no big deal.

“I don’t think adversity is something you wish for you or you hope for, but we’ve become accustomed to it,” Finley said. “Ability to adapt is a skill and it should be treated as such. And whether that’s adapting in game or adapting off the court or adapting to challenges, I think we’ve risen to the occasion every time and this should be no different.”

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More AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25