Transfer Trio Sparks Gators in Debut

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When transfer Leilani Correa and KK Deans got subbed in a few minutes into the first quarter Monday night, the tone and pace changed. 

The Gators, who went scoreless the first three and a half minutes of their 2022-23 season opener against Florida A&M, got their first points on a steal by Correa that led to a Jordyn Merritt layup. 

What happened the very next play? Another Correa steal that led to a pair of Gator free throws from the senior guard. 

“That really changed the momentum for us,” UF coach Kelly Rae Finley said of the back-to-back steals. 

From there, the Gators responded to the instant energy provided off the bench and went on to an 83-55 victory over the Rattlers. Of UF’s 83 points, 48 of them — more than half — came by way of the team’s trio of marquee transfers, led by Correa, formerly of St. John’s. She scored a team-high 18 points over 22 minutes, hitting six of her 11 shots, including 3-for-5 from the 3-point line, plus added four steals, as UF scored 28 points off of 28 FAMU turnovers. 

Guard KK Deans (3) celebrates post-game with fans after her first game as a Gator.

“It felt really good to be out there. I love my teammates. I love playing with them,” said Correa, the 6-foot guard from Manchester Township, N.J. “Coach challenges me, more than I have been challenged in my life, but it’s a good challenge and she always just lets me perform and that makes me want to perform. My teammates always expect me to perform, so that makes me want to perform.”

Deans, by way of West Virginia, tallied 15 points, five assists and two blocks. Ray Shayla Kyle, the 6-foot-6 center from Purdue, had 15 points and five rebounds. 

“I really like playing with KK,” Merritt said. “She just brings a lot of energy everyday.”

Energy, of course, is infectious. That’s a tremendous thing on a team that is so athletic, so deep and so versatile. 

Said Finley: “To feel like you have the freedom as a coach to be able to put us in the best situation to find success is really an amazing feeling, and that’s because of the student athletes we have.” 

That speaks to ability, as well as numbers.

The Gators went deep in their roster, with eleven players getting minutes and 41 bench points scored. Four players scored in double digits. Three of those were the transfers, each of whom came from big-time leagues (Correa and Deans from the Big East; Kyle from the Big Ten). 

“It’s a really good feeling to know you have that depth on the sideline,” Finley said. 

With a team win in the first game of the season, Finley can feel confidence in the way her team responded. 

So can the players. 

“I think that we finished strong,” Correa said after the Gators pummeled the Rattlers 24-7 in the final quarter. “I think that’s the most important thing,”