One Crying Moment: Dream Season, Seniors’ Careers, End In Nightmare

Where do I even begin?

What am I supposed to say to start my final game recap of one of the most magical seasons since I’ve been covering Gator sports?

I guess the most logical place to start is by saying that Florida played far from their best basketball last night, on the biggest stage of their lives, and it’s not totally unreasonable to be embarrassed, or ashamed, or disgusted. But I’m not any of those, and you really shouldn’t be, either.

OK, so yes, it’s fair to say Florida was awful against UConn. They finished with 53- tied for their lowest point total of the season (Wisconsin), blew their second early 16-4 lead of the season (also against Wisconsin), failed to contain DeAndre Daniels, missed several key free throws and just couldn’t hit open shots to save their lives. But nobody knows that more than the seniors do, nobody feels worse about than the seniors do, and hey- that’s sports. That’s how it goes sometimes. The world of athletics can be really, really cruel. If you don’t play competitive sports, you can’t know how it really feels, and if you do play sports, you know that to an extent- but still likely not to the extent that these Florida seniors do.

The four Gators who have now played their last game as Gators are Will Yeguette, Casey Prather, Patric Young and Scottie Wilbekin. To say they’ve been through a lot is like saying that playing with hungry tigers is dangerous. Upon arriving in Gainesville as freshmen, they embarked on a wild journey unlike any other experienced before- yes, that includes the “Oh-Fours.”

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As freshmen, these four guys generally didn’t see the court that much unless the game was well in hand or somebody got into foul trouble. The most any of them played was 17 minutes per game. But they did have their share of feel good moments in their maiden voyages in Gainesville. Wilbekin enjoyed a nine point effort (including two threes) in a 70-68 win over Kentucky in Gainesville, Young burned South Carolina for 12 points and five rebounds in 19 minutes (although Florida lost that game), and Yeguette hauled down 15 rebounds against North Carolina A&T. So they didn’t exactly tear it up, but there was certainly some promise among the group and hope for the future as the Gators lost in the Elite Eight to Butler.

But their sophomore seasons were, overall, disappointing. As the demand for big men increased with the losses of Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus, so did the playing time (and thus, numbers) for Young and Yeguette. Meanwhile, Wilbekin found himself watching Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton get most of the minutes at the guard position, and Prather rarely even saw the court. This was also the year that the words “collapse” and “Gators” were first linked; after losing several winnable games the year before, it was now fair to call this a p-a-t-t-e-r-n. Florida should have had no problem with Rutgers, Georgia or Tennessee; yet the Gators lost to each of those teams (and Tennessee twice). Anyway, the Gators wound up with a 7 seed (which I thought was a blessing in disguise) in that year’s tourney, and for awhile, it looked like I was right. Florida appeared to have a clear path to the Final Four, breezing past Virginia in Casey Prather’s coming out party, and then upstart Norfolk State to leave Omaha with two 25+ point wins. The Gators then knocked out 3rd seeded Marquette in the Sweet 16- also by double digits- and had Louisville down for the count in the Elite 8. But then they completely choked, allowing the Cardinals to run off 18 of the game’s final 21 points. The Elite 8 is certainly nothing to be ashamed of for a #7 seed, but it just felt like the Gators were capable of so much more at times.

Collectively, their junior seasons may have been their best from a numbers standpoint. For the first time, each of them averaged 17+ minutes per game, and they made the most of them. Wilbekin averaged five assists, three rebounds and nine points per game, Yeguette and Young continued to thrive down low (12 rebounds and 16 points per game between them), and Prather finally started to see the court, averaging six points and four rebounds per game. But this may have been the most frustrating season I’ve ever seen, because the collapses not only continued, they grew in number and in amount of frustration caused. After leading Arizona, Missouri, Kentucky and Mississippi late, the Gators blew each game, along with my confidence in them in tight games. Of course, these guys weren’t the sole cause of them; Boynton, Mike Rosario and Erik Murphy were not without blame either. But these guys were a part of them, which means they were part of their journey. Once again, the Gators made it to the Elite Eight. And once again, they laid an egg. This time, the opponent was Michigan, and Florida just never showed up, drawing a tearful farewell to the three seniors of that team who had gone through so much themselves- Boynton, Rosario and Murphy. While that was the dominant topic in the media, Florida’s four juniors quietly vowed to give themselves one final, unforgettable run.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t have very high hopes for this season in the months and weeks leading up to it, and this theory was bolstered by Scottie Wilbekin’s second suspension from the team, a weak opening day performance against North Florida, and then an ugly loss at Wisconsin. But as the four seniors were about to teach me, you can never truly predict the value of a team until they show you on the field or court.

As I mentioned, the seniors’ seasons all started off very sluggishly… with the exception of Casey Prather, who exploded for 28 points against UNF. That was my first clue that this team would be in trouble in lots of games, and there would always be someone there to pick them up and save them. It would be impossible to predict who that guy would be every night, but there would always be somebody. That much would soon be clear. The team started off sluggishly, too, beginning the year at 6-2- and even the wins were ugly. Florida was in trouble at various points in each game (against UNF, UALR, Southern, FSU) with the exceptions of Jacksonville and Middle Tennessee State. It appeared to be a safe bet that this team would struggle mightily in SEC play the way they struggled at times in their first eight games.

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 11.58.57 AMBut then Scottie Wilbekin returned, got healthy, and the Gators ripped off 30 consecutive wins, including one over a fully healthy Kansas team, one over a solid Memphis team in MSG, three over Sweet 16 bound Tennessee, and three more over one of the teams in tomorrow night’s national championship game, Kentucky. They just couldn’t lose. Not when they trailed Arkansas by two with 17 seconds to go. Not when Auburn led nearly the entire game in Gainesville. Not when Tennessee controlled the majority of the SEC Semifinals, and led almost throughout. Not even when Kentucky erased a huge deficit and had the ball with a chance to win the game and the SEC Championship. Whether it was Wilbekin with the game tying runner against the Hogs, Young with the Superman dive against Tennessee and clutch late free throws against Auburn, or Prather going off on UNF, this team always, ALWAYS had a hero. There was something magical about watching a team that had an ancient history of collapsing, but a more recent history of pulling out nail biters, go to work and salt games away late.

Until last night, that is, when the ghosts of chokes of seasons past returned at the worst possible time to make one final appearance.

The Gators won the tap and promptly got the ball to Michael Frazier, who buried a three. That launched a 16-4 run to start the game… through the first 11 minutes. Yep, UConn could only muster four points through 11 minutes, and zero from Shabazz Napier. The Gators were flying high in the rarefied air when they suddenly stalled, and forgot how to play defense while UConn simultaneously remembered how to hit a shot. An 11-0 Huskies run cut the Gators’ lead down to one. Somehow, they recovered and built up a five point lead on a layup from Prather and two free throws from Yeguette.

But then they totally collapsed, as UConn launched another run, this one 16-3, that carried into the second half and the Gators never found their offense in a frustrating 63-53 loss that ended the Gators’ season, and the seniors’ careers. And while there’s plenty of hope for the future of Gator basketball with Michael Frazier, Chris Walker, Kasey Hill, Dorian-Finney Smith, Eli Carter and DeVon Walker all likely coming back, the departure of the four seniors leaves a void that I’m not sure can ever be replaced.

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To Will Yeguette:

You were not the flashiest player the game has ever seen. You didn’t score many points, which is the stat fans generally care about the most. You didn’t do many things that stuck out to the average fan. But there was so much more to your game than what the SportsCenter anchors care about.

In a sentence, you were Florida’s rock. You were the Gators’ motor defensively, pulling down a shade under six rebounds per game this season. That also indicates that you saved some offensive possessions by grabbing a rebound, kicking it back out and starting the possession all over again, or even better, putting it back up and in. And that indication is correct, as you did both on several key occasions. You were highly underrated as a lane clogger, always a threat to stop a fast break by tipping a pass, or by simply putting your body in the ball handler’s way and drawing a charge or ¬†sometimes even getting a block. You were always willing to give up your body in order to get a random call four minutes into the game to go the Gators’ way. It’s not the stuff that gets you All-American status, but it’s the stuff that wins games for teams down the stretch, and at the end of the day, winning is what teams are remembered for.

I’ll always remember your borderline inhuman effort in the paint to grab every rebound as if the outcome of the game would be decided on it, your determination and your heart. Thank you for all you’ve done for Gator basketball. We love you, in all kinds of weather.

To Casey Prather:

Not many guys go from averaging 11 minutes a game over their first three years to leading the team in scoring as a senior. But then, you’re not like many guys.

I knew you were a special player from the day you imposed your will on Virginia. You were quite a hybrid talent, a ball handler averaging an assist and a half per game who could also crash the boards to the tune of five rebounds a game. Most defenses would concentrate on Patric Young down low and Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier on the perimeter- too bad for them they forgot to account for you wherever you were on the floor. You had more range on your jump shot than most guys who pulled down five boards a game, and you were a pretty solid defender to boot. On the rare occasions when Scottie Wilbekin would get beat, you would be right there to help out and save the day on that possession. You were the Gators’ biggest unsung hero all year, and were always willing to sacrifice yourself to make a seemingly inconsequential play at any given moment.

I’ll always remember your ability to score even when I thought the defense had a mismatch on you, and your underrated defensive skills. Thank you for all you’ve done for Gator basketball. We love you, in all kinds of weather.

To Patric Young:

You have as much heart and determination as any athlete I’ve ever seen. Yes, I was very much alive for the back to back national titles in 2006-2007, and I remember Tim Tebow, Erving Walker and John Brantley. I stick by that statement.

The flying dive you made to seal the second Tennessee game will forever epitomize what you gave to this program. Your own personal health and well being meant nothing to you compared to what the possession you were currently playing in did. You became quite a force down low on both ends of the court, and you wanted to win more and more with each second that ticked off the clock. You also never took no for an answer, and through an amount of work that I’m not sure anybody other than Tim Tebow could even begin to wrap their head around, turned your weaknesses into strengths. Your free throw shooting and your ability to score increased exponentially over time, and you not only developed a jump shot, but you expanded its range to near three point land by the end of your career. Lastly, you were a great leader, because as all great leaders do, you did it through example, laying down the foundation of exactly the type of effort that had to be put forth for others to follow.

I’ll always remember your willingness to do whatever on God’s green earth it took to improve, your guts, refusal to lose, and your leadership abilities. Thank you for all you’ve done for Gator basketball. We love you, in all kinds of weather.

And last, but certainly not least, to Scottie Wilbekin:

Your transformation from an immature kid into a leader in a matter of weeks is not something most people could pull off. But like I said about Casey, you’re not most people.

You could so easily have transferred, and gotten a fresh start elsewhere after your second suspension; in fact, that’s what Billy Donovan recommended you do. Instead, you stuck it out, served your suspension and turned into a hero. You rescued us, time and again, in situations and games that I believed Florida had no chance of pulling out. If Erving Walker was the Florida pioneer of “WHY would you do that… OH YEAH LET’S GO” shots, then you were the first king. You turned making seemingly ridiculous shots into a form of art, and you did it at the most clutch moments there were. In addition to that, you are among the best ball handlers/distributors in Gator history, easily picking apart even the best defenses in transition. Also, you may have been the best on-ball defender of this era, shutting down several teams’ top scorers. And like the others, losing was not something you were willing to accept.

I’ll always remember your loyalty, your ability to lock down on defense, and your knack for scoring both when the laws of physics indicated that you shouldn’t or when the game was, in some capacity, on the line. Thank you for all you’ve done for Gator basketball. We love you, in all kinds of weather.

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And, hence, the title of this website.

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 12.05.03 PMIn all kinds of weather, we’ll all stick together. I may have just turned 20, but that’s a life lesson I only really started to learn in the aftermath of this past football season, and one that I’m still learning through more painful experience, and will never forget.

One last time, to the seniors:

Thank you for all the work you put into this program, both the kind of work that we as outsiders saw in live game action and behind closed doors in the weight room, practice facilities and the film room. It’s not lost on me that you gave every ounce of strength you had every second you wore a game or practice jersey. You may not have been as talented as the “Oh-Fours” were, but you found your own way to a Final Four, three SEC Championships, and into my everlasting memories.¬†When discussing all time great Gator teams, you will not be the first, or even the second team mentioned. But you will be in the top five of everybody with a grain of sense, as one of the only five Florida teams to ever reach college basketball’s biggest stage.

We, as Gator Nation, will never forget you.

10 thoughts on “One Crying Moment: Dream Season, Seniors’ Careers, End In Nightmare

  1. This loss hurts as bad as any I’ve experienced in my 50 years as a fan of this program. I rank it right up there with the 2009 SEC Championship game which our football program has still not bounced back from. It will be a long time for the basketball team to bounce back from this one too.

    After the back to back championships I felt like it was going to be possibly something we would never see again. It’s tough to win this tournament. There are 68 teams in it and 67 go home losers. Winning three of them is extremely rare. In fact, only eight schools have done it and since both of the teams playing on Monday are among them, it will remain eight.

    Here are some schools that have not done it:
    Michigan State- yes that is right. We have as many national championships as the mighty Spartans.
    Syracuse- We have more than they do even though their coach is one of the winningest of all time.
    Georgetown- They only have one
    Villanova- only one
    Memphis- they have zero
    Michigan- only one
    Ohio State- only one
    Arizona- only one

    But this team had us believing they could get it down. Unlike last year’s team that could not win a close game, this one seemed to have it figured out. And just when they finally get to the last stop, they play their worst game all year. That is what really hurts here. They sucked us all in. They got us to believe. They choked.

    But what do we do about it? I have 50 years invested in this athletic program. I’ve been through more painful losses than I can count. I’ve also seen five national championships. I’ve got a house practically decorated in orange and blue. I have a closet full of Gators hats and shirt and drawers full of Gator t-shirts. What do I do? Pitch all that stuff?

    So I have no choice but to get ready for the next game, the next season and hop they surprise me, but knowing that they will eventually disappoint. Because national championships are rare. And unfortunately, we now expect them.

    The painful truth is, this past season will be a huge success compared to the ones that follow. This loss hurts like hell, but the season was a lot of fun. And this senior class was the second best class we’ve ever had. But unless Donovan can get a few NBA lottery picks in here and convince them to stay for more than a year, which is nearly impossible, Sweet Sixteens and Elite Eights with an occasional Final Four will be about as far as we get.

    1. Well said, although I will point out that there are fewer “national championships” handed out in basketball than in football because schools could claim a Pre-Helms national title up until about 1940. But yes, the mathematical chances of winning this tournament are insanely small (I laugh at those who want to expand it) and yes, we are a little spoiled to expect to overcome those odds and win that trophy.

  2. What a write up. Excellent work as usual, Neil, but this one strikes a little deeper. I love this team, and I love these players, so this loss made me want to curl up and cry. That’s essentially what this article did. It’s like listening to different types of music depending on what mood you’re in, i.e. a playlist. This one hit the spot. I was in the mood to hold my head in my hands and just shake my head at what could have been while alternately clapping and giving the seniors a round of applause at what they’ve accomplished during their four years in Gainesville.

  3. Fantastic work. It hurt to read now but but in a few months or even weeks it will be nice to come back and read it again. This team has much to be proud of.

  4. Fantastic piece as always. I know everybody else has already said this, but you made me tear up reading this piece. Thanks for this wonderful eulogy of what was one of the best teams in Gator history. In all kinds of weather we’ll all stick together is right.

  5. Appreciate the positive feedback, y’all. It was tough to watch that game, and even tougher to write this. But it had to be done. This is one of the hardest parts of covering sports.

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