Florida has already had a season full of lasting memories

Published: Sunday, March 16, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 17, 2014 at 12:21 a.m.

ATLANTA — Billy Donovan climbed down from the ladder and headed for his wife, Christine, standing at the middle of the court. He handed her a pair of three-inch pieces of nylon, one from each net, suitable for display.

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Florida Gators head coach Billy Donovan holds up the trophy next to Patric Young after defeating Kentucky 61-60 to win the SEC Tournament championship on Sunday, March 16, 2014 in Atlanta, Ga.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer

“She always does that,” he said. “She frames them.”

You knew nets would come down for somebody Sunday at the Georgia Dome and for about 30 minutes it was clear who would be doing the cutting. But in what felt like a blink of an eye, Kentucky came storming back with a Big Blue Wave behind it.

The Wildcats scored 14 straight points and it was getting loud, like standing next to a jet engine loud.

And because Florida treated the free-throw line like it was a turnover, this SEC championship came down to one play.

That's what happens in games like this where both teams want it so badly. Give Kentucky credit for coming back. Give Florida perfection.

“I knew they would drive it. That's what they do,” said Donovan, his voice raspy from three days of yelling instructions. “The key was Scottie Wilbekin's defense on (Andrew) Harrison.”

Yep, and the key for this year's success in the close games is all that these players have learned. Because when Wilbekin and Dorian Finney-Smith missed front ends of 1-and-1 free throws — potential game-losing misses — they didn't mope.

“Our guys have learned in the moment of something negative happening, re-focus and do the next thing that you need to do. You could have come out of that timeout Kentucky called with 14 seconds left, Dorian Finney-Smith hanging his head, Wilbekin hanging his head, I missed a free throw. I can't believe it.

“Now they aren't even thinking about the next possession. They're worried about what happened at the free-throw line. They did that in their careers. That was a problem for them. That's where they have gotten better.”

Instead of lamenting his big miss, Wilbekin locked in on Harrison. The Kentucky guard tried a couple of moves to drive the lane but found nothing.

“He couldn't get by him,” Donovan said. “When you eliminate penetration, it makes it hard for an offense.”

Harrison handed the ball off to James Young who came around the defense going what seemed like 100 miles an hour.

“He was going so fast,” Donovan said.

Too fast.

Young's foot slipped as he tried to cut and the ball went flying. Wilbekin dove to the ground “like a piranha,” Donovan would say later.

“In our last Kentucky game there was a loose ball and I didn't dive on it,” Wilbekin said. “Will (Yeguete) and Casey (Prather) yelled at me for not diving on the ball and I felt bad. So I thought about that and there was no way I wasn't going to dive on it this game.”

And the horn sounded.

Anyone who thought this team came here with nothing to play for (heard it) or needed a loss before the NCAA tournament (heard that, too) should have seen the celebration.

Because this team is about winning. These seniors are now the gold standard in the SEC. They're Perfect Oh-Tens. You may not be impressed with their individual talent or the three-bid SEC, but 21-0 is 21-0 no matter who or where or why you are playing.

Maybe they were lucky that Young slipped. It looked like he might have been able to get past Michael Frazier II, who had picked him up after the handoff.

But sometimes you need a break.

“There is a level of luck that comes into these situations,” Donovan said.

And he mentioned UConn this season and Chandler Parson's 70-footer three seasons ago and Gonzaga in 1999 (I guess that really stuck with him).

But it takes more than luck to go 104 days of a basketball season without losing one game.

They'll have at least a few days more before that possibility will exist again. The time to put this heart-stopping game in the past happened as you picked up your newspaper from the driveway.

“We wake up this morning, this is in the past,” Frazier said. “So I think we have to do a good job of understanding that we need to focus on our next point and focus on our next goal.”

The next one is the big one. But no matter what happens, this has already been a season of memories and confetti and trophies and pieces of nylon.

It's already a season that deserves to be framed.

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

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