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March 8, 2014

18-0 just one reason to root for Gators

There were 36 seconds left when Billy Donovan called the best kind of timeout a coach can use. It was ceremonial, solely to bring four seniors off the floor to a standing ovation and endless embraces.

An 84-65 victory against Kentucky, No. 25 in the nation and No. 1 in Florida's rivalry pecking order, was in the bag. So was the first 18-0 season in Southeastern Conference history. It was a crowning moment but not a feat any Gator would have said you were crazy for predicting before the season started.

"I would have believed you," senior forward Will Yeguete said. "I would have known that it would take a long road and a lot of work to get there, but I would have believed you."

His belief probably goes against the grain nationally, where analysts once again penciled in another sickeningly talented makeshift Kentucky team to win the SEC title. The greatest recruiting class in college basketball history - as it was often hailed - couldn't make it through conference play without six losses.

Four players who needed every bit of four years to live up to their potential instead hosted Saturday's party, and deservedly so. Through blowouts, surprisingly close games and marquee matchups, the Gators held steady. When they open the SEC Tournament Friday in Atlanta, they will do so having not lost a game in 102 days.

"For me as a coach, this is the greatest regular season I've ever been a part of," Donovan said. "When you invest four years like these guys invested, it means something to them. They're going to carry this for the rest of their lives. They're going to have their children and they're going to come back here and they're going to be remembered for what they have done. They have done something that has not happened here before, has not happened in our league before."

In fact, Florida is the first team to go undefeated in a major conference under an 18-game schedule since Indiana in 1976.

An undefeated conference record, 23-game win streak and a 29-2 record, is impressive no matter how it occurs, but the Gators' road in particular has been littered with possible distractions that might derail a lesser team. There were three season-opening suspensions, one that never ended. Florida lost two scholarship players to injury for the season before it hit conference play.

Chris Walker (finally) debuted and Casey Prather - suddenly the team's leading scorer - missed games and noise outside the practice facility doors soared from non-existent to the customary buzz that comes with being the nation's top team. Donovan admitted his love-hate relationship with senior days and was nervous the latter half would take over in what he called the greatest sendoff he has ever seen for a senior class.

"The one moment when we were all standing with our jerseys in the middle of the floor, I got a little emotional," Scottie Wilbekin said. "If it would have gone for a few more seconds, I would have shed a tear."

Patric Young said the emotions only fueled him. He had 14 points by halftime. He wasn't alone, as the Gators jetted to a 21-point halftime lead.

"Doing this with my brothers," Prather, a net draped around his head, said, "it makes me so happy."

Not only is this the hottest team in college basketball but it is led by players worth rooting for. That's the real reason the pregame ceremony and the outpouring from fans was so heartfelt. Yeguete carried a young leukemia patient he has bonded with the past two years in his arms as he was introduced alongside a family member "and his friend Kaedyn." The seniors led the crowd in a raucous rendition of "Happy Birthday" to Michael Frazier II and made him the first to cut the nets after the game.

Prather, Wilbekin, Yeguete and Young, were walking off the O'Connell Center floor when the moment seemed to hit all of them at once. Before they took their final step over the baseline and into the tunnel, they gathered side by side and smiled at one another. Shoulders touching, they took that last step together, in unison. Yeguete carried a fan's sign that read "18-0 AND MORE TO GO" "It just happened. We didn't plan it." he later said of the moment.

"This is not mission accomplished," Young said. "We are obviously headed in the right direction right now because the ultimate goal is to be national champions. The sun is going to come back up tomorrow and we still have to get back to work."

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