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March 30, 2014

'Destiny' is in reach for Florida seniors

Billy Donovan spends so much time making sure his team doesn't stumble over its own accomplishments that it's almost jarring when he allows himself to step back and verbalize the big-picture ideas everyone is thinking.

Saturday's pregame locker room, Donovan decided, was time for just that.

"Coach D said before the game that it feels like you're destined, like things happen for a reason," senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. "He felt like we were all brought together on this team for a reason. I think that couldn't be more true."

There might not be a better example of that destiny than Wilbekin. Nine months ago, Wilbekin was suspended from all team activities after violating an undisclosed "team rule" for the second time. He was given the option of transferring, though he admitted his family would have never let him leave in lieu of changing his ways.

Wilbekin spent the summer working tirelessly on his game - knowing his offensive role would have to increase as a senior - and trying to earn his way back into Donovan's good graces. That meant moving back into his parents' home, part of the criteria for his reinstatement, and serving a five-game suspension to start the season.

Florida prides itself on being a team that doesn't circulate around one person, but no one has been more critical to this year's success than Wilbekin. He was named Most Outstanding Player in the South Region Saturday night after scoring 67 points to go along with a 12-2 assist-turnover differential in four NCAA Tournament games. Asked to reflect on his obstacles, Wilbekin unsurprisingly declined. The night was about his team.

And what a team it has been.

The Gators' four seniors had experienced everything except the glamour of a Final Four. Three Elite Eights and three heartbreaking losses, the past only sweetened Saturday night's 62-52 victory against Dayton. Patric Young was almost immediately reduced to tears.

"I was just in disbelief," he said. "It was kind of weird because I'm so used to walking into my locker room after that final buzzer. It was all just a shock and surprise and just gratitude."

Young has battled expectations and comparisons since arriving at UF a five-star prospect. Donovan made a point of appreciating him for what he is before the season and the result has been his best basketball yet. Will Yeguete has been fully healthy for the first time since early in his career. Casey Prather has found his role. Together, they have positioned themselves within two victories of a national championship.

Maybe it has been addition by subtraction. The lack of multiple players who can create for themselves has forced the Gators to follow Donovan's ideal game plans closer than any team in Florida's past.

Maybe that destiny is coming full-circle. Saturday night, Wisconsin - one of two teams to defeat Florida this season - clinched a Final Four bid as well. Kentucky is still alive, as is Connecticut and Michigan. The Gators might get the chance to right their two wrongs.

"Our goal at the beginning of the year wasn't to be the south regional champions. Our goal was to be national champions," Young said. "Walking up the ladder, I just was thinking about how I wanted to be able to do this again. I want to do whatever I can to help this team to reach that ultimate goal that we set at the beginning of the year, and just that feeling has helped me to stay humble to know that there's more. There's more hunger within us, within this whole team to keep going."

Maybe the journey is what will make next weekend so special.

Florida NEWS


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