UF exceeded expectations


The Florida Gators bench against the Louisville Cardinals during the second half of the Elite 8 game on Saturday at the U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix, Ariz. Louisville defeated Florida 72-68 to advance to the Final Four.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, March 24, 2012 at 8:33 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 24, 2012 at 8:33 p.m.

PHOENIX — For 32 minutes, not much went wrong for Florida's basketball team. For the final eight, just about everything did.

The team that had found its long-range shooting touch snuck out the door when nobody was looking.




The team that had played such great defense in the tournament couldn't stop anyone.

The team that had been riding Bradley Beal's hot streak couldn't find other ways to score when he suddenly went cold.

The calls started going the other way. The pressure of the moment seemed to get to them. And all the lessons they hoped they had learned from last year's late-game collapse against Butler in the Elite Eight were forgotten.

Maybe it was tired legs. With a chance to tie the game, both Beal and Kenny Boynton came up short. Patric Young was struggling to get up court.

“They outplayed us for 32 minutes,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino. “It really hurts inside because he did a masterful job of coaching.”

That was the winning coach talking about hurting. The watery eyes of the Florida players told us how much they hurt.

“This is life,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan. “You pour your heart and soul into something and that's when you find out how important it is. The further you go in the tournament, the more painful it is.”

It was a devastating loss even though few people thought this team would get that far. They did it again, got you all excited and then ripped your heart out of your chest and stomped on it, right?

But think about how they feel.

You can look at this team as chokers, gaggers, a bunch of guys who couldn't get it done in the clutch. Or you can say, “Hey, that was a great ride. Too bad it had to end.” Because it ends for 67 teams eventually.

You can look at these Gators as a team that should have gone further. Or as a team that shouldn't have gotten this far.

In his last game as a Gator, Erving Walker summed up his career in 40 minutes. He knocked down a pair of 3s in the first half and ended the game with seven assists. But down the stretch, he clanged two 3s and missed two big free throws with the Gators hanging on to a six-point lead.

It's what these guys were.

There were games where they didn't play hard this season, but they used up every ounce of passion in the postseason. They were hot and cold shooting all year and Saturday was the yin/yang in microcosm. Florida shot 67 percent in the first half and made eight 3-pointers, but shot 37 percent and couldn't make one 3-pointer in the second half. The bench that came alive in March went dead again scoring only five points.

Sure, it was just like last year, right down to having Karl Hess as one of the officials again. We all talked about the similarities of losing an 11-point lead in the last 10 minutes with a Final Four berth on the line for the second straight year. But Donovan saw it differently.

“Totally different actually,” he said. “Last year, we got beat on loose balls. I think we played the game the right way. We just came up short.”

Don't take it personally that Florida did not advance. These guys played their hearts out. Just when so many people gave up on them at the end of the season, they pulled together and survived some of Donovan's most brutal practices to form a bond and battle to the end, an end that came too soon.

“You don't get to this point in time if you don't have any substance,” Donovan said.

That they had.

“It feels terrible,” said Walker.

It's supposed to.

The legacy of the 2011-12 Gators is still difficult to define. The wound is too fresh. Your heart needs rehab.

Today you're still trying to understand why the shots quit falling, whether Beal was pushed on the crucial travel call with 17.8 seconds to play and why most of Florida's turnovers occurred in the halfcourt.

But one day you'll look back and think about how close they were.

Whether it makes you grimace or smile, well, that's up to you.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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