GAINESVILLE (AP) — Scottie Wilbekin sat hunched in his locker, his eyes red, his voice hush and his legs still cramping.
Teammates Casey Prather, Will Yeguete and Patric Young were a few feet away, also fighting back tears while trying to find words to explain how they played so poorly on college basketball’s biggest stage.
It was a painful ending for Florida’s four seniors, the mainstays of coach Billy Donovan’s team.
But when the disappointment flees, when the vivid details of how Florida’s national semifinal unfolded Saturday night at AT&T Stadium fade, the Gators will be able to smile about what will go down as one of the most successful seasons in school history.
“This team was so special, something I’m never going to forget for all my life,” Young said after a 63-53 loss to Connecticut. “We accomplished a lot just by loving each other and being really committed and loving playing with one another. So I’m just really going to cherish everything that we had this year and it’s going to be something I’ll never forget.”
Florida won a school-record 30 consecutive games, set another mark with 32 consecutive home wins, became the first team to go 18-0 in the Southeastern Conference’s regular season, swept the league tournament and earned the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament for the second time.
And after losing in a regional final the last three years, the Gators finally made it to the Final Four.
They talked all week about not being satisfied with just getting here and finishing the journey. They recited Donovan’s recent anecdote about getting to a potential stopping point while climbing Mount Everest, and instead of settling for the small accomplishment, finding the fortitude to make it the rest of the way despite potential pitfalls and adversity.
Florida tried. The Huskies got in the way — again.
The Gators (36-3) lost to UConn in early December on Shabazz Napier’s buzzer-beater, which many called lucky. The rematch was far from a fluke, with the Huskies dominating the final 30 minutes of the game.
During the last break, with just a few seconds left on the clock, Florida’s seniors huddled on the court with tears in their eyes.
It was over, and everyone knew it.
“Obviously the four seniors, we came together and we have been through a lot,” Yeguete said. “Just finishing up doing all the things we done this year, I think it’s really special. Going to a Final Four is something special as well. I think we’re going to continue to just cherish our friendship and we’re going to stay close after this.
“This game is not changing anything, regardless of how I feel, about my relationship with them. They’re great guys. I love them, love to be around them. I just wish them the best and I know they’re going to be successful in life.”
The seniors finished with a program-record 120 victories, including 13 in the NCAA tournament. They also won three SEC titles.
They provided Donovan with a unique combination of players who stayed in school, committed to the process, got better every year and ended up with significant roles for the one of the nation’s top teams.
It wasn’t enough to beat UConn. But it surely will cement this group as one of Donovan’s best, right behind that star-studded team that won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007.
“Everybody will remember this season for the team that we were able to become,” Wilbekin said. “At the beginning of the year, it didn’t look like we would be much of a team. Then throughout the year, we just really came together and did a lot of special things, broke a number of records at the school and won some really tough games.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t go out the way we would like to, but only one team is going to do that. So we just have to try and remember all the good things that we did before this point. Even though it’s hard right now, I’m sure that I’ll look back on this year and be really proud of the guys that were standing next to me.”
The guys behind them should be worth watching, too.
Sharp-shooter Michael Frazier II, dynamic guard Kasey Hill, versatile forward Dorian Finney-Smith and big man Chris Walker are a solid nucleus to build around next season. Throw in transfers Eli Carter, Alex Murphy and Damontre Harris, as well as incoming freshmen Chris Chiozza, Brandone Francis and Devin Robinson, and the Gators could be a contender again in 2015.
They have a tough act to follow, though.
“The No. 1 question I ask myself every year is: Did our team play as close as possible to their 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.”
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