ARLINGTON, Texas — Patience was the hallmark of the Florida Gators. They made a commitment to college and to each other. They bucked the trend of treating campus like a waystation and teammates like fleeting acquaintances.
The six seniors on Florida’s roster — four of them starters — stuck around through three straight heartbreaking Elite Eight eliminations in the NCAA Tournament. Their final year was to be their reward.
The Gators came into the Final Four the way a marathoner comes into the last mile with a one-minute lead. They were rolling along on a 30-game winning streak and possessed the No. 1 ranking and the favorite’s role with only two games between them and the finish line.
But on Saturday night, the Gators were caught from behind by a Connecticut team that not only made them look slow but confused. Accustomed to doing the frazzling, Florida was frazzled in a 63-53 loss that stopped the seniors short of their ultimate goal and prevented Coach Billy Donovan from joining an elite group of college coaches who have won at least three national titles.
Scottie Wilbekin, who had emerged from Donovan’s doghouse to become the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, had an awful game, missing seven of nine shots, making only one assist and losing three turnovers. He wasn’t himself. He had to go to the bench for treatment of cramps, although he said that was not an issue. In a play that typified his frustration, Wilbekin was pickpocketed by Shabazz Napier, who tossed a long pass to Ryan Boatright for an easy layup. That quick, creative Husky tandem defused any hopes of a Florida comeback late in the second half.
“I went through the same thing in the Final Four that Scottie did,” Donovan said, referring to his 1987 experience as Providence point guard against Syracuse. “So much of the offense came through my hands. The difference was Scottie could not live in the lane like he did all year for us. He had a hard time getting around Boatright and Napier.”
Florida relied on its stubborn, cohesive defense to get to the Final Four, but after Connecticut switched to a small lineup, it was the Huskies’ harassing defense that dictated, limiting Florida to 38.8 percent shooting. Florida sank a three-pointer on its opening shot, then missed its next nine.
“We couldn’t get anything going,” Wilbekin said. “They were being really aggressive with their pressure. A couple of us had bad shooting nights.”
The paint was a black hole for Florida as well. Connecticut forward DeAndre Daniels took advantage of lob passes, stomped through the lane for dunks and even beat the Gators on the dribble.
Connecticut was the most overlooked of the Final Four. Among dominant Florida, dazzling Kentucky, and goofy Wisconsin, no one quite knew how to characterize the Huskies. But their backcourt is proving the adage that guards win championships.
Inside the cavernous football stadium that is home to the Dallas Cowboys, the game flipped on UF, which blew an early 12-point lead to trail 25-22 at halftime and by as many as 12 points as the game got away.
The Gators never gave up. Patric Young dove for a ball like a tight end even when it was too late. But Florida’s stats told the demoralizing story. Only three assists to 11 turnovers. Sharpshooter Michael Frazier II attempted only three shots. Will Yeguete was 0-for-2. Young had only five rebounds and one block, which came at the beginning of the game.
Still, the Gators deserve the gratitude of college basketball fans for their steadfastness.
In a sport that has been ravaged by those who go pro after one or two seasons and those who transfer at the smallest sign of adversity, the Gators remained true to their school and coach. Get a good look at Kentucky, because its five freshmen starters may be in the NBA come July after their warmup and snack stop in Lexington.
“I was trying to get the guys to stay in the moment because we’ve been a team that has come from behind a lot and I thought if we locked in we could do it again,” Young said. “This team was so special. It’s a part of my life I’ll never forget. We accomplished a lot by loving each other and loving playing with each other.”
Early season suspensions and injuries made Donovan think he had a dysfunctional team, not one that would march undefeated through the SEC.
He knew he didn’t have a team of superstars, not like his title teams of 2006 and 2007. None of the seniors are projected to be NBA first-round draft picks.
Wilbekin reinvented himself, from unreliable offensive player with a questionable work ethic to SEC Player of the Year. Donovan’s faith in Wilbekin wavered to the point that he offered the guard a chance to transfer. Instead, they settled on a deal: To stay on the team Wilbekin had to attend pre-dawn workout sessions and move in with his parents, who live nearby.
Young was a lumbering hulk who developed into a skillful big man, and an example to his fellow athletes in academics.
Yeguete was a shy, homesick kid from Bordeaux, France, who became the steadying, do-everything handyman. Casey Prather has more than doubled his scoring average since last year, when he was a reserve.
Together — and only together — they embellished Gainesville’s reputation as much more than a football school in a football conference. The basketball team has won as many national titles as the football team since 2000 (two) and has a higher winning percentage.
“It’s never an easy exit because you’re an invested team at this point,” Donovan said. “After every year I try to evaluate and the No. 1 question I ask is if our team played as close as possible to its potential. This team maybe more so than any team I’ve coached played way beyond our potential. The whole was better than the parts. I got a chance to experience a lot of personal victories off the court.”
On the court, Florida’s season ended with a surprising crash. But the seniors will have years of memories to sustain them.
“At the beginning it didn’t look like we’d be much of team, but we really came together, broke some records, won some tough games,” Wilbekin said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t go out the way we wanted. We have to try to remember all the good things we did, although it’s hard right now.”