With just over four minutes left in Monday's season opener for the Florida Gators women's basketball team, combo guard Zippy Broughton was sitting on the bench when head coach Kelly Rae Finley shouted the three sweetest words she'd heard in over a year and a half: "Zip, let's go!"
Never mind that the Gators were comfortably ahead and cruised to an 82-65 victory over North Florida. It didn't even matter that she would only see four minutes of action that night.
This was no ordinary substitution. For the 5-foot-7 sixth-year senior — who had transferred to Florida from Rutgers prior to the 2021-22 season — it marked the first time she had stepped on the court for a real game in nearly 20 months.
Broughton, whose real first name is Zipporah, suffered a shoulder injury prior to the 2022-23 season, sidelining her for the entire campaign.
It was a major blow for the Gators, who were coming off a 21-11 record and their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2016. After spending three seasons at Rutgers, Broughton averaged 10.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.4 steals for Florida in 2021-22.
Those numbers improved in SEC play: 14.2 points per game, 4.7 rebounds per game and 2.3 assists. Broughton scored 20 or more points in three games, including a career-high 28 in a comeback victory over Texas A&M.
Without Broughton, the Orange and Blue finished a disappointing 19-15 (5-11 SEC) in 2022-23. They reached the quarterfinals of the Women's National Invitation Tournament before being eliminated by Bowling Green.
Broughton's rehab stretched over a year and a half filled with physical and emotional ups and downs, and long hours in the gym. Those months were some of the darkest of her life, but she never gave up.
The brief appearance against North Florida showed some rust (two assists and two turnovers), but Broughton's teammates were inspired.
"We were all so happy when we saw her come off that chair," senior forward Leilani Correa told Gators.com after the game. "What it means is everything."
It certainly did to Broughton.
"I wasn't thinking about (the shoulder) at all," she said. "I was thinking about my conditioning and game pace. The nerves? I got that out of my system, which means Kelly (coach Finley) is now going to make me play like she knows I can play."
The Gators will need a healthy Broughton this season, which features a tough non-conference schedule with four games against teams in the Top 50 net rankings, along with a competitive SEC slate. Everyone in the program will be keeping their fingers crossed that her return will result in another NCAA Tournament bid.
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