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Friday, May 25, 2018
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After NCAA loss, Gators ponder what might have been

ARLINGTON, Texas — Scottie Wilbekin sat hunched in his locker, his eyes red, his voice hushed 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 Saturday’s 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 previous 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 tourney, and 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.

Still, it wasn’t enough to beat UConn.

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