“This is the way to go out. You couldn’t script this one any better. You go 18-0, you get to cut the nets down. Michael Frazier’s birthday, we all walk off the court together, kiss the floor. You know, what else could you want? This was the perfect way to end things.”
Florida Gators senior center Patric Young
There were many story lines for the Florida Gators heading into the regular season finale versus Kentucky. Suffice it to say though that more than anything else they were chasing history and seeking perfection.
On Senior Day when the university honored it’s four member senior class before Saturday’s game, Patric Young and the other seniors helped the Gators survive a second half charge by Kentucky leading them to a dominating 84-65 victory over the Wildcats in the process making history by becoming the first SEC team to finish 18-0 in league play.
It looked as though the Gators would easily waltz into the history books in the first half as the Gators raced out to a 22 point lead, the largest deficit Kentucky faced all season, before going into halftime up 49-28. The Gators were clicking on all cylinders using their smothering pressure defense to force turnovers and get out in transition, dominating the glass, and playing textbook offense.
“We were really good offensively, we were good at both ends,” head coach Billy Donovan said afterwards. “I thought we played well on both ends of the floor. We were unselfish, we moved it and passed it. I thought we got out on the break, we got stops. Their field goal percentage in the first half helped us get on the break. I thought we capitalized on the break. I though we played really, really well and obviously scored a lot of points there in the first half.”
Kentucky would come charging back after the intermission, however, by extending the Gator defense, driving into the lane, and crashing the boards.
“I thought we got spread out on defense and we kind of played into their hands a little bit in terms of opening up driving gaps for them and them getting the ball to the front of the rim, offensive rebounding,” Donovan said. “Then Randle and their frontcourt guys around the rim caused some problems.”
They went on a 15-0 run to get within 6 points with a little over 12 minutes to go in the game before Billy Donovan finally called a timeout to try to stop the bleeding.
“I sensed a little bit coming out of the locker room, maybe (the Gators were) a little drained,” Donovan said. “I knew Kentucky was going to make a run. They’re too talented not to. Give them credit they battled and fought their way back in there.”
After the timeout, Scottie Wilbekin stepped up with a huge three point shot which stopped a 15-0 Wildcat run and allowed the Gator faithful to finally breathe again. From there, the Gators went on a 24-13 run to extend the lead back out to 17 after Wilbekin hit another huge three and by then it was all over but the shouting.
“Scottie stepped up and knocked down a big three,” Donovan said. “Got the lead back to nine. We made a couple of plays we got it back up to double digits. It pretty much stayed between twelve and thirteen for a few minutes. And then we got some stops and we obviously were able to open the game up there in the second half.”
Patric Young led the Gators with a season high 18 points, 7 rebounds, and 1 block. Prather and Wilbekin, who played only limited minutes in the first half due to the foul trouble, made amends in the second half. Prather wreaked havoc in the paint with his quickness and athleticism while Wilbekin hit some huge perimeter shots and was an effective facilitator in the second half.
After Kentucky had closed to 6, Prather and Wilbekin combined to score 15 of the next 17 points to take back control of the game. Prather finished with 15 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and a steal while Wilbekin chipped in 13 points, 3 rebounds, and 4 assists.
“I can’t believe we got it done,” Prather said. “I was just so excited. It speaks volume about our character, our toughness, our will to get better. I’m just so happy we got it done tonight.”
Adding, “It’s very special because it shows we really want this for ourselves and for this program. And I feel like with the players on this team we weren’t going to allow a run to beat us.”
Senior leadership taking over for the Gators in the second half on Senior Day. You couldn’t script it any better. Asked about the second half play of his seniors leading the Gators when Kentucky made their charge Donovan responded,
“Yeah those guys answered the bell, they made some plays. And it was good because, in the huddle, as Kentucky made a run, the right things were being said. And there was a focus in their eye of next play, we’re fine, let’s get this stop, let’s have a good possession here. I think the right things were being said in terms of their communication with each other.”
While it was the seniors who took over in the second half, it was the Gators youthful bench, led by freshman Kasey Hill and Dorian Finney-Smith, which provided quality minutes in the first half helping the Gators on their big first half run by putting up 20 points collectively, 11 from Finney-Smith.
“I think it says a lot for what Kasey did running our team and the other guys that stepped up because we had to battle through some foul trouble with Prather, Scottie two of our seniors. DeVon Walker played well with two fouls. I thought we had a good contribution from our entire team there in that first half battling through some foul difficulty.”
Freshman Kasey Hill had perhaps his best game as a Gator, particularly in the first half with Wilbekin on the bench, running the Gator offense to perfection using his quickness and athleticism to get into the lane and showing his elite passing skills getting the ball to open shooters off the double team. He finished with 8 points, 7 assists, and a steal.
“I thought it was Kasey Hill’s best game by far that he’s had here,” according to Donovan. “I thought he was aggressive, he was physical, he was tough. He played with a motor, he played with energy. I think being a young kid he had to learn a lot. He missed a few games because of his groin. But Scottie goes out with two fouls, I think we’re up by seven at that point, and Kasey ran our team and allowed me to keep Scottie on the bench without putting him in harm’s way of getting his third.”
The Gators won the battle of the boards 32-27, against a bigger Wildcat lineup and they finished with 20 assists against only 10 turnovers an amazing 2-1 assist to turnover ratio. That’s a welcome sign for the Gators for a team that had struggled in that area earlier in the season.
“I think our assist numbers are getting up there again which I like to see,” Donovan said. “It’s been now about three games in a row where we’re getting between 16 and 20 assists per game. The ball is moving, we’re utilizing each other well. “
Despite the huge first half, Donovan warned at halftime not to get complacent, that Kentucky would fight back and make a game of it in the second half and his players took it to heart. The Gators won as they have all season, by remaining poised in the face of adversity and fighting through and surviving the big Kentucky run.
“Yeah, we did (believe Donovan),” Scottie Wilbekin said. “We jumped out early on them. We were able to make some threes, get some turnovers, fast break points, and in the second half they did a good job of scoring, I think they had nineteen points in the first ten minutes. And like we’ve always done this year we tried to fight through, weather the storm, and just push through to the end of the game.”
The senior day festivities were highly emotional for the four seniors who are second on the all time career wins list with 113 four behind Walter Hodge’s 117. It was a great emotional send off for both the players and the fans who have built a strong relationship with these guys over their last four years.
“Our fans since I’ve been here in eighteen years,” according to Donovan, “that was one of the greatest send offs I’ve ever seen for a senior class since I’ve been here. And our fans deserve a lot of credit for that. And I’m thankful and I’m appreciative.’
“The one moment where we were all standing when we had our jerseys holding them up,” said Wilbekin. “I got a little emotion. If it had went for a couple of more seconds I might have shed a tear.”
Donovan had warned about not getting too caught up in the emotions of the festivities and allow it to distract them from the task at hand.
“We’ve got to be able to block out all those distractions,” Donovan said. “You cannot allow yourself emotionally to get yourself drained.”
adding, ” I can only imagine what those guys are feeling like, the four of them standing there, as everybody’s cheering for them, and now they have to go back into the locker room and now get ready to play. That’s a challenge, that’s a challenge.”
For their part, they were able to fight through those emotions and make the best of the last home game of their Gators career. They saved the emotions for after the game kneeling together to kiss the floor of the O’Connell Center where they made so many lasting memories over the last four years but on which they’ll never compete again before walking off together one last time.
“When you invest four years. like these guys have invested, it means something to them. They’re going to carry this with them 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’ve done. They’ve done something that has not happened here before. It has not happened in our league before. And to me there were a lot of emotions and I’m proud of the way they handled themselves leading up to this game.”
The players are rightfully proud of their accomplishments as well, but the full magnitude of what they did hadn’t yet fully sunk in.
“I won’t say I don’t think it’s a big deal but it hasn’t hit me yet,” Will Yeguete said. “I think we’ve been working for it for a long time but we’ve just like been winning games, we’ve been winning. But I think we’ll look back on it in a little while we’ve actually done something really special, we’ve really made history. I love those guys, I love being out here, great coaching staff. We’re just having fun, it’s fun playing on this team.”
With the victory, the Gators finished the regular season 29-2, 18-0 in the SEC, and extended their overall winning streak to 23 games as well as their home winning streak to 32 games, all of which are school records. It’s a culmination of a lot of hard work and focused determination for a team and a senior class which faced so much adversity not only this season but throughout their career.
“It’s pretty cool, it’s pretty cool,” Patric Young said. “We’ve been accomplishing a lot of things this year, but that’s the result from the hard work and everything we’ve invested earlier in this year whether it’s the strong man training, the individual instruction, the going to class, the getting to know each other better. All that stuff, this is the fruit of all that hard work and whatnot.”
They’re not done, however, with the upcoming SEC tournament and then the NCAA tournament, the Gators have much higher goals still ahead of them.
“Celebrate this (18-0 record) because what it was was really, really special and I don’t want anything to take away from what these guys have accomplished up to this point in time,” Donovan said. “But we’re going to really, really need to get emotionally, physically, and mentally recharged again and not live in this for the next week and walk into Atlanta living in it. We’ve got to be able to put this now behind us. Now’s not the time, they need to enjoy this, but they need to come back inspired to take on the next challenge in playing in a conference tournament on Friday.”
Conference tournament notwithstanding, the Gators have even loftier goals as they shoot for the ultimate prize an NCAA tournament championship.
“No I don’t think it’s mission accomplished. We’re in the right direction right now because the ultimate goal is to be national champions. I think we’re going in the right direction right now. It’s good we can sit back and say yeah we’ve accomplished something. But the sun’s going to hopefully come back up tomorrow and then we’ve got to get back to work.”
Get back to work. That’s been perhaps the best trait of this team, their ability to get back to work and focus on the next task at hand. Whether it’s been big wins, close wins, or tough losses, this team has been able to forget about the last game and quickly focus on the next one. No time to let their guard down now.
“I talked to them a little bit,” Donovan said. “I think obviously I try to move to the next thing, but I do think you can learn from the past. If you go back and as great as Noah and Horford and those guys were, and they did some unbelievable things here, you can point to those guys clinching an SEC championship and kind of limping to the finish line so to speak, where they dropped three out four, three out of five those two years. And then obviously once post season started they kind of rebooted themselves and played at an unbelievable level both years. I use that as an example a little bit. As good as those guys were and as talented as they were, if you don’t come ready to play, this is what happens.”
The mantra of this team throughout this season has been striving for greatness. According to Donovan, it’s all about getting better every day and striving to be the best you can be.
“I use this term all the time like striving or chasing greatness, I think people sometimes think I mean in terms of SEC championships or undefeated seasons. That’s not what it is, it’s can we be the best we can be today. And then we’re going to let the results fall where they may.”
This team embodies that mantra as good as any prior Donovan coached team.
“Can we chase being the best we can be?” queried Donovan. “In order to do that I think you have to have everybody bought into trying to do that. And I think that they’ve rallied around that. This is a unique and special team, how good can we be and let’s not leave anything left on the table. And let’s be as good as we possibly can. What you want to do as a coach I think is have your team play as close as you possibly can to your ability, your potential. And I think this team has done that. Are we perfect all the time? No. The record says we’re perfect in the league, but we’re not perfect, we’ve had some bad games, we’ve had some games we haven’t played very well. But I don’t think as a coach I could be any prouder of a team striving to be better and better each day.”
For now, however, the Gators will enjoy the win, enjoy the record, and bask in the glow of accomplishing something no Gator team and no prior team in SEC history has ever done.
“Right now we’re just trying to enjoy ourselves right now,” Yeguete said. “We worked pretty hard to accomplish this and right now we just want to celebrate for a little bit. Next we’ll go back and get ourselves ready and just another game. When the time comes you just want to make sure you’re ready to go.”
For sure, there are goals still out there and the Gators will get back to work on Monday as they have all season. But for now, it was the perfect ending of a perfect conference regular season. It ended, according to Scottie Wilbekin,
“The perfect way. We couldn’t ask for anything more.”