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Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: After perfect season, Gators just getting started

GAINESVILLE — Why not the Gators?

Why not this Florida basketball team, again?

They have the experience, the poise and the coach, Billy Donovan.

Why not a third national championship?

Florida senior forward Casey Prather stood in the O’Connell Center on Saturday afternoon wearing a basketball net on his head, part of the prize after the top-ranked Gators waxed Kentucky, 84-65, to end the greatest regular season in school history.

It was an emotional Senior Day, framed jerseys before the game, snipping twine after it. An SEC regular-season championship. And a chance at much more.

Why not these Gators?

Billy’s bunch became the first SEC team to finish 18-0 in conference play.

“We set our goals to win the SEC, but to go 18-0?” said Florida senior center Patric Young, who led the Gators with 18 points Saturday. “But once we were 11-0, 12-0, 13-0, we decided let’s just go ahead and do it, let’s do it. And we got it done.”

Yes, there’s more to do. The last three seasons, Florida has been stopped at the foot of the Final Four. Three straight trips to region finals, to the Elite Eight, only to come up short.

But why not these Gators?

They’re No. 1. They’ve won 29 games, a school record for the regular season. They’ve won 23 consecutive times, another school record. They could have won at Wisconsin and should have won at UConn, their only blemishes.

Maybe they’ve beaten up on a lousy SEC.

But who, in the whole country, scares you?

Florida can beat anyone.

Why not these seniors, Prather, Young, guard Scottie Wilbekin and forward Will Yeguete?

It wasn’t lost on anyone, as the seniors gathered to kiss the Gator painted on the playing floor (“Just saying goodbye,” Prather said) that it came against Kentucky, which trotted out another five fab freshmen, more John Calipari One and Dones.

“Before the season, they had the preseason player of the year, they had the team that, preseason, was supposed to win it all and all that stuff,” Young said. “All that stuff doesn’t matter. It all comes down to what happens between the lines.”

Why not these Gators?

They play defense. When they hit their 3-pointers, as they did Saturday, you can’t beat them. And they don’t rattle.

Florida flashed to a 22-point lead late in the first half. Kentucky roared back with a 15-0 run in the second half. The Gators calmly pulled away again.

“Their execution of their stuff, naturally, being seniors, is going to be better than us,” Calipari said.

Novel idea, being seniors.

Florida will be a No. 1 NCAA seed no matter what happens at the SEC tournament. They’ll play their early rounds in friendly Orlando. Yes, anything can happen. These seniors, maybe more than any seniors ever, know what it’s like to just miss a Final Four — those blown leads against Butler and Louisville, then last year’s blowout loss to Michigan.

“It’s in the back of our minds,” Young said. “But we see that this team is so different, chemistry wise, staying locked in and focused. I think we’re a much, much better team than we were last year.”

Saturday was for cutting nets and kissing the court as fans roared and Kentucky, which has no idea what a Senior Day looks like anymore, headed for the bus.

“When you’ve invested four years like these guys have invested, it means something,” Donovan said. “They’re going to carry this 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, that has not happened in their league before.”

Maybe they’re just getting started.

Why not the Gators?

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