For Florida's seniors, four-year journey ends one game too soon
ARLINGTON, Texas -- When he entered a huge locker room filled with silence and bloodshot eyes, Billy Donovan thanked his team. He told his Florida Gators all the things coaches tell their players when the end comes. He told them how proud he was. He told them not to hang their heads. He told them they achieved so much during a 30-game win streak and a run to the NCAA tournament's No. 1 overall seed that they can't be disappointed about. He said one loss, even one in the Final Four that ruined their championship hopes, would not define them.
Then Donovan turned to his senior point guard, Scottie Wilbekin, who endured multiple suspensions and tested the limits of a program's patience before carrying his team to Saturday night. And then Donovan told a different story. Twenty-seven years ago, the Gators coach said, a senior point guard led his team to the Final Four and expected to play his best when it mattered most. The ball was in his hands, always, to make the plays for his team. And he didn't. He missed nine of the 12 shots he took, scoring less than half of his season average. And Providence guard Billy Donovan moved on from the miserable night of March 28, 1987, and that loss to Syracuse to treasure the experience of getting there. Just like Scottie Wilbekin would. One loss wouldn't define him. Even if that one loss only made Wilbekin realize how much he'd miss all this.
"It means a lot," Wilbekin said of Donovan's personal address. "Just because of the relationship we've developed over this year has been really good, and I really cherish it. It just sucks, because it's coming to an end."
That it came on Saturday against Connecticut was surprising enough. That it came in a 63-53 loss that was an upheaval of everything that Gators had done to become the best team in the country -- that was numbing. A Florida defense that strangled 11 straight opponents, allowing less than a point per possession each time, surrendered 1.10 points per trip to the Huskies and 55.8 percent shooting overall. A balanced offense that ranked among the top 20 most efficient units in the nation sputtered to .815 points per possession in the first half and a middling .93 overall. Florida shot 38.8 percent and made one three-point shot -- its first, on the first series of the game. Hounded by Connecticut's guards, offensive flow was non-existent; the Gators recorded three assists all night. No team has recorded fewer assists in a national semifinal since 1983-84, which was the first year assists were kept as an official statistic.
All that Florida had done to get here crashed at once. That is why Wilbekin bowed his head and bit down on his jersey as time expired, having battled second-half leg cramps on the worst possible night. That is why Casey Prather sat at his locker, eyes streaked red. That is why Will Yeguete cupped his hands over his eyes and sniffled as he stood by the door, getting a pat on the arm from Patric Young before turning his back so no one could see his face. "They played up to their potential for 30 straight games," Florida assistant Matt McCall said. "As close to that line as possible. Tonight, they just didn't play that well."
They had for the first 11 minutes. Florida slowed guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright from the start, methodically building a 16-4 lead. Then the Gators got loose on their pick-and-roll coverages, the Huskies found openings at the three-point line, and found themselves on an 11-0 run. From there, Napier and Boatright were able to penetrate into the lane too consistently. The Huskies guards hounded the Gators' backcourt, Wilbekin especially, cutting off the Florida offense before it even got started.
And the Gators couldn't find their way to anything easy, either, recording zero fast-break points. They were dragged into a half-court rock fight and wilted. "They were really disruptive," Wilbekin said. "We were just disjointed on offense a lot, we ended up in late clock situations, having to force something up. It was one of our worst offensive execution games of the season."
No one was more affected than Wilbekin. Last summer, Wilbekin was suspended from the team for the second time in less than a year for unspecified rules violations. Donovan famously suggested Wilbekin might consider a transfer. Wilbekin stayed, endured the discipline, endured missing the first five games of the 2013-14 season, and became the SEC player of the year and the embodiment of a Gators team that worked through early personnel uncertainty to become a formidable whole. This weekend was to close the loop.
And here Wilbekin was Saturday, walking off the court not two minutes into the second half, the muscle cramps on the inside of both of his knees striking again. He felt fine all day. He felt fine all first half. He'd been drinking water and avoiding sodas. "I couldn't believe it," Wilbekin said.
He didn't play well again, with Boatright receiving primary defensive duty but Napier delivering the final knife twists. With a little less than seven minutes left and the Gators trailing by only five, Wilbekin began sizing up Napier off the dribble at the top of the key when the Connecticut guard stuck his hand in to pick the ball clean, flipping a pass ahead to Boatright for a breakaway dunk. With less than three minutes to go, Napier again poked the ball away from Wilbekin on the perimeter and a DeAndre Daniels jumper followed to put the Gators into a 10-point hole.
Beset by the cramps and Connecticut's defense, Wilbekin finished 2-of-9 from the floor with just one assist against three turnovers in 34 minutes. "The difference in the game was Scottie Wilbekin couldn't live in the lane like he had all year for us," Donovan said. "Every time we needed a big shot or a big play, he was in the lane. He had a really, really hard time getting in the lane around Boatright. He had a hard time getting around Napier, which inevitably made our offense very, very difficult."
This was a chance for Florida to win a third national championship under Donovan and thereby vault its coach to a rarefied level, with only John Wooden, Adolph Rupp and Mike Krzyzewski having won more than three titles. It was among the program's best chances, too, fueled by a quartet of veterans that was the first senior class in school history to win three SEC championships, doing so this year by going 18-0 in league play and then sweeping to the postseason tournament title.
"For the first time in my life, I was part of a group of guys that were really willing to bleed for one another," Young said. "One thing I can take from this team is just when you can truly love a group of guys or people like this, you bring the best out of them and you bring the best out of yourself."
Some raw material remains to make return trips in years to come. Sophomore Michael Frazier II was the team's third-leading scorer. Sophomore Dorian Finney-Smith was the SEC's sixth man of the year. Freshman Kasey Hill averaged 20-plus minutes a game as Wilbekin's backup. Presuming he does not bolt for the NBA after a cameo in Gainesville, former five-star recruit Chris Walker will have an entire year to develop his body and better understand every nuance of Donovan's system. "We'll add some new guys to the fold, some guys that were sitting out, and the ship's going to keep moving in the same direction," McCall said.
But will it move as resolutely as it had this season?
It was difficult to think of that late Saturday night. This was Florida's championship to lose, its moment to let go, and everything unraveled. Donovan said that how this team came together was one of the most special experiences he's had as a coach. The heavy silence in the locker room reflected the disbelief about how it all came apart.
"It hit me before all y'all came in here," Wilbekin said, speaking softly at his locker. "It's really sad. I just love being a Gator so much and now just everything about college is over. It hurts."