University of Florida

Florida Gators seniors try to see silver lining after Final Four defeat

It ended so abruptly: the nation’s longest winning streak (30 games), a historic run through the Southeastern Conference (21-0), the magnificent careers of a group of record-setting seniors and perhaps Billy Donovan’s greatest coaching effort to date.

Although Saturday’s sour conclusion might cloud the closure of a once-peerless team, the top-seeded Gators still made their mark on history.

Just not at the Final Four.

“When you look back and say the word career, you don’t just look back at that last game. You look at everything,” senior center Patric Young said. “This team was so special, something I’m never going to forget for all my life.”

For the past four months, the rough-and-tough Gators — beaten at their own game by seventh-seeded Connecticut 63-53 at AT&T Stadium in the NCAA Final Four semifinals on Saturday night — shrugged off college basketball’s pronounced parody and pummeled opponents into submission time and again.

But the Gators unraveled at the worst possible moment Saturday night, their toughness and togetherness unhinged against the Huskies’ pressure and physicality.

But Florida’s poor performance against an undersold UConn team — highlighted by Scottie Wilbekin’s cramp-induced nightmarish game — did not diminish the team’s lasting legacy of loyalty, grit and a lot of hardware.

Bookend losses to Connecticut spoiled the “Core Four’s” dream ending, but locker room tears, sniffles and silence eventually fade.

Florida’s accomplishments this season won’t be forgotten.

“It’s interesting. If [we’d] won the next two games people probably would’ve talked about this team as one of the best team in college basketball history; but we just ran into a bad night,” UF assistant coach Matt McCall said. “It’s unfortunate. The things they accomplished. The records they broke. The fact they won 30 games in a row, go through the SEC and win 18 straight.

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“There’s another team still playing from our league [Kentucky] that they beat three times. They broke records. They shouldn’t hang their heads. This one is going to sting, but hopefully after a couple days they’ll look back and think, ‘What a year.’ ”

The Gators — without a single NBA lottery pick or perhaps even a first-rounder — cut down three nets this season and a fourth Monday night would have placed them in elite company.

The 2013-14 metamorphosis (and maturation) of Wilbekin, Young, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete into the Fearsome Foursome created the perfect storm of balance and bite, an unstoppable force suddenly — and surprisingly — stopped Saturday night.

According to Donovan, the Gators probably never should have been in the position to feel pain in the first place.

“Maybe more so than any team I’ve coached based on the talent level, we played way beyond our potential,” Donovan said. “We have been a team where the whole has been better than the parts. When you break us down individually, we’re not the most talented group, but when you stick us together collectively we’re really good. … It was one of the most special experiences I’ve had being around a group of guys away from the court since I’ve been coaching.”

The Gators (36-3) had more questions marks (suspension, injuries, depth) than known commodities just seven months ago. They overachieved. The seniors’ swan song will forever be that togetherness trumps talent.

It didn’t Saturday night, but for most of the season they were right.

“Everybody will remember this season for the team that we were able to become, because at the beginning of the year it didn’t look like we would be much of a team at all,” said a sullen Wilbekin. “I hate to see it end like this, but I know when I look back I’m going to cherish this season.”

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