Florida is sick and tired of talking about the past two seasons. The Gators are tired of the questions, tired of people wondering what happened and how this year could be different.
“It’s all anyone brings up,” center Patric Young said of the team’s past failures. “Yeah, I am, definitely [tired of it].”
Frustration is understandable. Consecutive losses in the Elite Eight in heartbreaking fashion can turn even the nicest of people into hardened souls. That’s what the NCAA Tournament does. That’s what losing so close to your goal does.
In 2011, Florida led Butler for 22 minutes and held an 11-point lead with fewer than 10 minutes to play before falling 74-71 in overtime. In 2012, Florida led Louisville for 32 minutes and again held an 11-point lead with fewer than 10 minutes left only to once more feel the pain of defeat.
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But after defeating tournament darlings Florida Gulf Coast 62-50 on Friday, the No. 3 seed Gators (29-7) have a shot at redemption when they take the court Sunday at 2:20 p.m. inside Cowboys Stadium against the No. 4 seed Michigan Wolverines (29-7) with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
The team held a meeting following the loss to Louisville last year in which every member stated what they would sacrifice to reach that point again. And before the season began, Young said a day doesn’t go by that he doesn’t think about the loss.
“People are going to remember us when we leave that we came up short,” he said at the time. “That’s in my head.”
On the eve of possible redemption, emotions were high Saturday.
“There’s fear of having a repeat of that same thing,” Young said. “But also hope that we can — with the experience that we’ve had as a team — that we’re going to come out and we’re going to fight against that and give it all we’ve got for 40 minutes just to not experience that again.”
Said guard Mike Rosario: “Coming into this tournament before all these games started, that was something that you’ll always remember before any of the games — just that locker room after. Two years of being in the Elite Eight and not capitalizing to go to the Final Four. You just remember the silence in the locker room. That’s what motivates us.”
Florida is the only team in the past three seasons to make the Elite Eight each year. However, should the Gators lose to the Wolverines on Sunday, they would also become the only team since the NCAA Tournament expanded beyond 16 teams to lose three consecutive regional finals.
Senior guard Kenny Boynton, a Pompano Beach native and four-year starter who has etched his name into UF lore as the second-leading scorer in school history, said that is not how we wants to be remembered and that making it back to the Elite Eight doesn’t really mean anything if the team can’t go further.
“You set a goal at the beginning of the season, and we’re trying to reach our goal,” he said. “We can’t be satisfied with an Elite Eight. That’s not our goal.”
Standing in the way of their goal is a talented team fresh off an emotional ride of its own, as Michigan erased a 14-point second-half deficit to shock Kansas on Friday.
A young team that is led by perhaps the best player in the country in point guard Trey Burke, the Wolverines are trying to get back to the Final Four for the first time since 1994.
Against Kansas, Burke become the first player to score 20 points and notch 10 assists in a Sweet 16 game since Florida coach Billy Donovan did at as a point guard at Providence in 1987.
“Clearly, from an offensive efficiency standpoint, they may be the best in the country,” Donovan said of the Wolverines. “They’ve got a great guy in the backcourt in Burke that is just terrific. … This is a great challenge.”
And that’s all Florida asked for: A challenge, a chance to be back in this spot and a chance to change its legacy.
“It happened. We lost two Elite Eights,” Donovan said. “But we have another opportunity. As a team, what more do you want? … People remember what’s recent, so if we come out and win this one, who knows what they remember?”