Fans, cheers help lift spirits for returning Gators

Florida's senior Will Yeguete signs an autograph for a fan as a few of the Gator players meet with fans at the Gainesville Regional Airport after returning home following the teams loss in the NCAA tournament semi-finals, in Gainesville Sunday, April 6, 2014. A group of about 50 fans greeted the team at the airport.

Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, April 6, 2014 at 5:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 6, 2014 at 5:36 p.m.

Fans lined the terminal fence of the Gainesville Regional Airport Sunday afternoon to welcome home the Florida basketball team after their defeat in the Final Four.

The team and about 100 others, including the Gators' band and team boosters, flew in from Dallas at about 2 p.m. on a large Southwest airliner.

A group of five students huddled as close to the gate as possible waving pompoms and signs long before the team had even arrived.

“We just wanted to show the team that we still support and love them,” said Stacey Sapp, University of Florida junior. “Even though things didn't go as we'd planned, we are still proud to be a Gator.”

After 30 straight wins this season, the Gators fell to the University of Connecticut Huskies Saturday night with a score of 63-53. Prior to that loss, the Gators were ranked the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

“It was a great accomplishment,” senior player Will Yeguete said. “I am sad. I am disappointed that we lost that way, but I think that it was a great run.”

Yeguete said he was proud of the team despite Saturday's loss and acknowledged the skillful playing of UConn.

“They played better than us yesterday. Yesterday, they were the better team,” he said. “You just give them credit, you know, and be able to move on. We did great things this year, and hopefully we will look back in a few years and realize that we were a great team.”

Senior Scottie Wilbekin said he was really happy to make it to the Final Four.

“It felt good,” Wilbekin said after stepping off the plane.

After the long season, Wilbekin said the team plans to take some time to rest before thinking about the future.

“I'm going to take a week off, and the other guys will take some time off, and then they will start getting ready for next year,” he said.

After stepping off the plane, the Gators' bus pulled around to dozens of cheering fans, who waited just beyond the terminal.

Coach Billy Donovan told the crowd that the loss was disappointing, but he was thankful for their continued support.

“I appreciate everyone being out here and showing up, and everything you did for us this season,” Donovan told the crowd.

“Thank you!” a voice from the crowd yelled back.

Senior Patric Young called the last four years “unbelievable.”

“We are all going to remember this for the rest of our lives, and you guys made this lucky for us,” Young told the crowd. “I know it's a tough pill to swallow that it didn't end the way we wanted it to, but, you know, we went out fighting.”

Olivia Dejong, a UF junior, wore a huge smile as the team mingled through the crowd.

“It's so nice to welcome them home, and it just feels like a family again,” she said.

The senior players signed hats and balls, while fans crowded around them asking for a picture. The players worked their way around the crowd, wrapping their arms around the fans and holding phones out to snap a shot.

Gainesville native Jesse Saarela said the crowd went wild on March 29 when the team returned after landing a berth in the Final Four. The players came out to visit the fans that waited for them as they arrived at the airport in the early morning.

“It was like a mosh pit. Everyone had their phones and taking selfies, and it was a big hoot,” he said.

But even after the loss, Saarela and fans like him showed up to support the Gators.

“We wanted to come just show some support for the team,” he said. “They have given us so much joy and so much fun throughout the year, especially the seniors. We thought it'd be fun to come out here and wave and at least say hi to the guys, and to welcome them home.”

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