Seniors say goodbye to O'Dome, hello to history
Published: Saturday, March 8, 2014 at 5:37 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 8, 2014 at 9:01 p.m.
The nets had been slashed to ribbons on both ends of the floor and the four seniors assembled one last time in the middle of the O'Connell Center floor. Together they dropped to their knees and kissed the Gator logo.
I never thought I would see a team enjoy winning and making history as much as the 2006 and '07 Florida teams. I was wrong.
These guys reveled in the moment, soaking it in like sponges. Scottie Wilbekin punched at his heart and mouthed “I love you” to the Rowdy Reptiles. Casey Prather wore one of the nets like a beret when he bent to kiss the logo.
“We knew it was the last time at the O'Connell Center,” Prather said. “We just wanted to say goodbye.”
You say goodbye. I say hello. Hello to history. And to a team that will be the favorite to win the next tournament and the one after that.
Because this looks like a team that is getting better.
That may seem impossible for a team that hasn't lost since early December. But the current Gators are finally nine-deep. And rather than take the clinched SEC championship, sticking it in their back pockets and cruising the rest of the SEC season, they have blown out three straight opponents.
“I don't think — as a coach — I could be prouder of a team striving to be better,” Billy Donovan said. “That's the thing you try to do — play as close to your potential as possible. I think this team has done that.”
On Saturday, Florida executed like the best team in the country for a half, leading by 21. But if this had been easy, it wouldn't have been as much fun.
And you knew the Wildcats had 10 minutes of great basketball in them.
So here they came. Julius Randle was unstoppable. Florida's offense suddenly couldn't get a good shot, let alone make one.
This team, which has trailed by double digits only once all season (at Wisconsin), gives up 15-0 runs about as often as I do sit-ups. It was stunning and surreal and gave the Kentucky fans who squeezed into a packed O-Dome a reason to get loud.
Up only six points, you sensed a team that showed up playing loose had tightened up.
“I noticed coming out of the locker room at the half, maybe a little drained,” Donovan said.
But this was Senior Day. And the team with the seniors looked as if it suddenly remembered.
“I was wondering why coach didn't call timeout a few points earlier,” said Patric Young. “We just had to get our heads on straight. We weren't going to let that (comeback) happen.”
A bomb from Scottie Wilbekin, a slashing reverse lay-up by Prather, a clutch hook by Young.
Just like that, it was a comfortable lead again.
“Those guys answered the bell,” Donovan said.
And it was all over except the celebrating. Of that, there was plenty, a season worth of holding it in let loose on the floor. The seniors huddled to share the impact of what they have done, then orchestrated the students in a rendition of “Happy Birthday” for Michael Frazier II.
Winning the SEC was the first goal of this team. Going 18-0 wasn't something anybody dreamed about until the wins kept clicking off one by one and the number grew to double figures. The win at Kentucky made you think it was possible. The win at home against Kentucky made it that much sweeter.
“It's amazing,” said Prather.
Amazing is too small a word.
Saturday was a night to celebrate. Sunday is a day to reboot and look ahead to the next goal in Atlanta.
But nobody who was there will ever forget this day, this Senior Day unlike any other.
“We tried not to think about Senior Day and what we would do afterwards,” Prather said. “But it crept in.”
Of course it did. They could imagine a moment like this, the celebration and the nets coming down and the hugs and the love for their fans. They could close their eyes and see it even when nobody else could.
Who goes 18-0?
“You know, when I was in Little League, we went 21-0,” Young said with a finger in my chest. “But this is another level.”
A level unlike anything we've seen before.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.