Finish doesn't define journey
Published: Monday, April 7, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 6, 2014 at 11:17 p.m.
ARLINGTON, Texas — It was always there, hiding behind a rock or a tree and occasionally showing up like an annoying relative at the party until it was shown the door. You knew it might show up at the wrong time and that the brighter the lights the better the chance.
You know this great team had that game in them.
That game where little goes right. That game where missed free throws hurt. That game where Michael Frazier II is invisible. That game where bad shot selection backfires.
That game showed up for the Florida Gators on Saturday night at AT&T Stadium.
You might want to say it showed up at the worst time. I disagree. What if it had shown up in Orlando or Memphis?
Instead of lamenting that it did show up, Florida fans should be thankful it waited so long.
“We have been a team where the whole has been better than the parts,” coach Billy Donovan said. “When you break us down individually, we're not the most talented group, but when you stick us together collectively, we're really good.”
As Donovan must have said 50 times during this NCAA tournament run, there are no easy exits from the Madness. Sometimes I think the pain of a loss is deeper the deeper the run. If you lose early, you think about what went wrong. If you lose late, you think more about what could have been.
Donovan talked about it Saturday night, about the realization that it was coming to an end, that he was about to see his seniors walk off the court for the last time together.
The open wound that exists today cannot be healed easily, but the memories of an incredible season should help ease the pain.
“This game is not changing anything,” said senior forward Will Yeguete.
It shouldn't. And I think most of you get that.
Late on Saturday night, I ran into a quartet of Gator fans at the media hotel. Amit Vyas from Atlanta, Kevin McGuire and Brian Reeves from Tampa and Roy Mora from Miami had all attended UF together and made the trip to Texas.
They told me that when the game was over, they stood and applauded this team as it left the court.
“I'm just so proud that those guys were wearing Florida jerseys,” McGuire said.
From a group that was dysfunctional in November to the Final Four in April, this was a journey like no other I've experienced covering Florida athletics. Every time there was a big game, I wondered if this was the night the streak would end.
But for 30 games, it lived.
Then, that game showed up.
But as I was taking another endless shuttle bus ride back to the hotel late Saturday night, I thought about how that game was always there. Every team had them during this season. Kentucky at South Carolina. Duke and Syracuse and Kansas in the tournament. Villanova in its conference tournament.
For four months, Florida avoided that game. And that's what makes the school-record 30-game winning streak so remarkable.
“We have a lot of great memories,” said senior forward Casey Prather. “I'll always remember the run we had.”
One loss doesn't make what this team accomplished any less wonderful. One hushed locker room doesn't ruin anything.
“It was really hard going back to the locker room after a loss,” said senior guard Scottie Wilbekin. “Knowing I'll never play with this group again. It's really sad.”
Sad ending. Great season. Unforgettable.
“The number one question I ask myself every year is, did our team play as close as possible to our potential,” Donovan said. “Maybe more so than any team that I've coached based on the talent level, we played way beyond our potential as a team.”
They were The Overachievers.
They overcame suspensions and sprained ankles and cramps and Patric Young's miserable knees and shaky foul shooting and the weight of having a target on their backs for the last couple of months.
They just couldn't overcome that game.
“I got to experience a lot of personal victories along the way off the court,” Donovan said. “Their body of work on the court, people will evaluate and judge for themselves. But for me, personally, where they were as individuals and where they were as a team to where they came from in terms of becoming a team, I mean, it was one of the most special experiences I've had being around a group of guys away from the court maybe since I've been coaching.”
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.