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April 6, 2014

Gators try to balance reflection, disappointment



Aptly describing Florida's four seniors is a vague and imposing task. It's most succinct to say you'd like them.

They'd pose for a picture if you asked and smile their way through a random conversation. Similar to their coach, they're personable, gracious with their time. Plenty of college students detract from the charm of an otherwise innocuous town. For four years, they've only made Gainesville better.

Humanitarianism is required in prescribed doses for a scholarship athlete, but these Gators were special for what they did when cameras weren't around and press releases weren't announcing every scripted good deed.

Unfortunately for Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete and Patric Young, basketball's national championship is not a career achievement award or a Samaritan award or even a best season award. It is decided in a bitterly unforgiving single-elimination tournament, and Florida lost 63-53 to Connecticut Saturday night.

Billy Donovan gathered his players in the locker room shortly after the loss and told them this one game would not define a season or career. He was proud of them. Minutes later, he'd say this team exceeded what he ever thought it could be.

Thanks to suspensions and injuries, Florida opened its campaign Nov. 8 with eight scholarship players; two playing through injuries that would soon end their seasons. Walk-on Jacob Kurtz, the "kid" who used to watch practice from the balcony, played 26 minutes that night out of necessity.

Pieces returned and were added and before long the Gators were the best team in America. Saturday's loss came 125 days after Florida's previous loss. In between, the Gators won 30 consecutive games. UF's previous record was 17.

Wilbekin was Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, Young the conference's Defensive Player of the Year. The Gators went 21-0 in SEC play, including a three-game sweep of the SEC Tournament. They won four games at the NCAA Tournament by double figures and advanced to the fifth Final Four in school history. Only one team ends its season the way it aspires to, but prolonged success makes the odds seem more favorable than they truly are.

"We felt as though we really had the chance to be that team," Young said. Everyone with a laptop or microphone who followed college basketball seemed to agree.

Saturday night might not define this team but two wins in AT&T Stadium would have given the Gators a perfect conclusion.

"I hate to see it end like this, but I know looking back I'm going to cherish this season for a long time," Wilbekin said.

The irony is Kentucky, a team Florida beat three times this season, will play Monday night for a national championship. John Calipari's team is so often billed as the anti-Florida; five freshman starters and a wildly inconsistent regular season that has turned into a red-hot tournament run. It's a reminder of how cruel this time of year can be in this sport and how "March Madness" can tell a story so different from what was expected all along.

By then, Saturday's Florida loss will feel old to the most of us. It might never feel old enough for the team that put together the four best months in school history.

"It's real. It's over," Young, in a rare search for words, said. "These guys are going to meet on Tuesday, and these four guys are not going to be there. I'm not going to be there, Scottie, Will, Casey."

Wilbekin: "It's really sad. I love being a Gator so much. Now, everything about college is over. It hurts."


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