The No. 1 Florida Gators (29-2, 18-0 SEC) left the Stephen C. O’Connell Center having completed the greatest regular season in school history and with the most accomplished senior class in the history of the program.
Head coach Billy Donovan spoke the media after his team’s 84-65 victory over the No. 25 Kentucky Wildcats (22-9, 12-6 SEC).
”THE GREATEST REGULAR SEASON I’VE EVER BEEN A PART OF”
Donovan began his post-game press conference by stating matter-of-factly how proud he is of the Gators and the way they performed all season long despite being met with plenty of adversity along the way.
“I think the first thing is, for me as a coach, it’s the greatest regular season I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “What these guys have done, going all the way back to the second game of the year at Wisconsin with obviously a depleted roster and then going to UConn and losing both point guards in that game and having to play a lot of our non-conference schedule somewhat banged up, guys not there. And then obviously having to battle through some injuries throughout league play.
“But their consistency and the way these guys have performed, to win 18 games in a row in this league, it’s never happened before. … These guys have done a remarkable job. And certainly happy for our four seniors, the way it ended for them and obviously the way they played. Just the regular season has been great. Hopefully we can decompress a little bit, get a little time here and get ready for the next step in Atlanta.”
With that, Donovan also expressed that he also could not be “any prouder of a team striving to be better and better each day.” However, he did note that he has mixed emotions about the concept of Senior Day and how it can impact a team heading into an important game like UF’s on Saturday.
“I love Senior Days and I don’t like Senior Days. It’s like you going to work the last day and that’s it, and you’ve got a job to do. It’s hard to focus on that,” he explained. “You got people saying, ‘Oh, I can’t believe it’s your last game, we’re going to miss you, I can’t believe how fast…’ Before you know it, you’re in this depressed state. You forget to play.
“I told those guys we can’t do that. I was worried about two things – that, emotionally, and then the other thing I was worried about was them wanting something too bad and forgetting to play because they want it so bad. I just told them we got to play possession-by-possession this game. That’s what we’ve done and that can’t change. We’ve got to be able to block out all those distractions. You cannot allow yourself emotionally to get yourself drained.”
SENIORS STEP UP IN SECOND HALF OF SENDOFF
After a 15-0 run by Kentucky cut Florida’s lead down from 21 to six points – a stretch of seven-and-a-half minutes in which the home team went scoreless – the Gators were able to regain their substantial advantage due almost solely to the efforts of the senior class.
It was apropos that senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin drained his first three-pointer with 11:56 left in the contest to end the Wildcats run and begin a 24-13 stretch for UF with each of the 24 points scored by members of the senior class. Florida’s seniors extended their team’s lead to 17 points with 2:33 remaining – the final basket of the senior-only takeover being another Wilbekin triple – and saw it increase to 21 with less than a minute to play.
The same Gators being honored on Senior Day ultimately saved the day and ensured Florida went out the right way. Also contributing to that? The jam-packed Stephen C. O’Connell Center crowd.
“Our fans, since I’ve been here in 18 years, that was one of the greatest sendoffs I’ve ever seen for a senior class since I’ve been here. And our fans deserve a lot of credit for that, and I’m thankful and I’m appreciative,” said Donovan.
“When you invest four years like these guys have invested, it means something to them. They’re going to carry this with them for the rest of their lives. They’re going to have their children and they’re going to come back here and they’re going to be remembered for what they’ve done. They’ve done something that has not happened here before; it has not happened in our league before. To me, there were a lot of emotions, and I’m proud of the way they handled themselves leading up to this game.”
“I’M NOT GONNA CRY, ROY”
Florida’s seniors admitted that they were emotional during the Senior Day ceremony that preceded the game but none actually broke down and cry…though one was close.
“The one moment where we were all standing when we had our jerseys and we were holding them up…I got a little emotional,” Wilbekin said. “If it would have went for a couple more seconds, I might have shed a tear.”
Concurred senior forward Casey Prather: “I thought I was going to cry, actually. I was surprised I didn’t. I knew if one of us started crying, all of us would burst out crying.”
Prather said the moment meant so much for the Gators because he and his classmates “really wanted this for ourselves and for the program.” Wilbekin could not have imagined a better ending to their last game in the O’Dome.
“The perfect way, couldn’t ask for anything more,” he said.
Senior center Patric Young broke down all the ways that Saturday’s victory wound up being the perfect way to cap a fantastic four years at Florida.
“This is the way to go out. You couldn’t script this one any better,” he said. “You go 18-0, you get to cut the nets down, Michael Frazier’s birthday, we all walk off the floor together, kiss the floor, what else could you want? This is the perfect way to end things.”
HISTORY, STATS AND STREAKS
» Florida has won three of its last four games against Kentucky and swept its rivals during the regular season for the first time since 2007.
» The Gators became the first team in SEC history to go 18-0 in league play.
» Florida is 80-9 since the beginning of the 2011-12 season when holding an opponent under 71 points in a game.
» This marks the latest in the regular season that the Gators have been ranked No. 1 nationally. Florida has achieved a No. 1 ranking in four separate seasons and is 19-5 playing as the top team in the country.
» UF has won 28 of its last 29 games.
» Florida’s senior class is the first in school history to win three SEC Championships.
PROGRAM RECORDS SET, EXTENDED THIS SEASON
» Record to start a season (overall): 29-2
» Record to start a season (SEC): 18-0
» Winning streak (overall): 23 games
» Regular-season wins: 29
» SEC wins (single season): 18
» SEC road wins (consecutive): 9
» Home wins (overall, consecutive): 32 (two full seasons)
» Home wins (SEC, consecutive): 18 (two full league seasons)
2014 SEC TOURNAMENT
The field for the 2014 SEC Tournament was released at the conclusion of regular-season play on Saturday night. Florida, which locked up the No. 1 overall seed last week, will play its first game in third-round action on Friday at 1 p.m. on ESPNU against either (8) Missouri or (9) Texas A&M.
Below is how the Gators have performed against their half of the bracket this season:
W 67-41 vs. (4) Tennessee
W 67-58 at (4) Tennessee
W(OT) 84-82 at (5) Arkansas
W 68-58 vs. (8) Missouri
W 69-36 at (9) Texas A&M
W 68-61 at (12) Auburn
W 71-66 vs. (12) Auburn
W 74-58 vs. (13) South Carolina
W 72-46 at (13) South Carolina
— OnlyGators.com (@onlygators) March 9, 2014
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Donovan on how freshman PG Kasey Hill performed in a reserve role on Saturday: “I thought it was Kasey Hill’s best game, by far, that he’s had here. I thought he was aggressive, he was physical, he was tough, he played with a motor, he played with energy. Being a young kid, he’s had to learn a lot. Missed a few games with his groin. But Scottie goes out with two fouls, and I think we’re up by seven at that point. Kasey ran our team and allowed me to keep Scottie on the bench without putting him in harms way of getting his third. I think that says a lot for what Kasey did running our team and the other guys that stepped up because we had to battle through some foul trouble.”
» Donovan on why Florida struggled for a long stretch of time in the second half: “Right below the 16-minute timeout we just didn’t play great basketball. I thought we got spread out on defense and we kind of played into their hands a little bit in terms of opening up driving gaps for them and them getting the ball at the front of the rim, offensive rebounding. And then [Julius] Randle and their frontcourt guys around the rim caused some problems. But I thought our guys kept their composure, kept their poise, just kept playing, knew it was a 40-minute game and just kept coming.”
» Donovan on the Gators going 18-0 but that not meaning the team is perfect: “The record says we’re perfect in the league, but we’re not perfect. We’ve had some bad games. We’ve had some games we haven’t played well.”