Gators seniors respond en masse to complete perfect SEC schedule
With Kentucky rallying back and nipping at their heels, Florida's seniors were the ones to answer the bell, putting the Wildcats in their rearview en route to capping off a clean slate in the Southeastern Conference.
Florida's seniors kiss center court after their victory over Kentucky on Saturday afternoon.
Kim Klement / USA TODAY Sports
By Chris Harry
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Seriously, how fitting was it all?
The Kentucky Wildcats had sliced a 22-point lead to just six with 12 minutes to go. The top-ranked Florida Gators, trying to keep their appointment with destiny, had inched the lead back out to 10, but all those among one of the liveliest crowds ever to pack the O'Connell Center were a little uneasy, just waiting for a reason to erupt.
Seniors to the rescue. All four of them.
In succession, Casey Prather scored three points, Will Yeguete dunked for two, Patric Young threw in a hook and Scottie Wilbekin bombed a 3-pointer.
Of course, they did.
"Those guys answered the bell," Coach Billy Donovan.
It was their day and with a legacy theirs of the taking, Florida's incomparable senior class not only stayed in the moment, as their coach likes to say, but positively seized it to lead the top-ranked Gators to an 84-65 beating of the 25th-ranked Wildcats and into the Southeastern Conference record books before a crazed O'Dome crowd Saturday of 12,604.
Young scored a season-high 18 points and grabbed seven rebounds, while Prather hit all five of his field-goal attempts on the way to scoring 15 points. Wilbekin shook off first-half foul trouble to score 13 points and dish four assists. Yeguete posted five points and seven rebounds.
All told, the UF elders went for 51 points, 20 rebounds, made 19 of 29 shots and carded four assists, but those weren't the numbers everyone was talking about afterward.
The digits of note were "18" and "zero."
That's how the Gators (29-2, 18-0) finished the SEC season, thus becoming the first team in the league's history to go perfect through an 18-game slate. During 28 seasons the SEC has played 18 games five teams posted 17-1 marks.
Florida, which clinched its second straight SEC title and third in the last four years, became the first conference team to be perfect over 18 games, finishing a full six games ahead of runner-up Kentucky (22-9, 12-6) in the final standings.
"This is not 'mission accomplished,' but we're obviously headed in the right direction," Young said after UF not only won its 22nd straight game, but also 32nd in a row at home, both school records. "It feels good to sit back right now and know we have accomplished something, but the sun is going to come back up tomorrow and we still have to get back to work."
Yes, the Gators have more items on their checklist, but they'll get a couple days to enjoy what Donovan called "the great regular season" he'd ever been a part of before focusing on the SEC Tournament next week in Atlanta, where the Gators will be the No. 1 seed, and the NCAA Tournament the week after.
"I can't say this is something we set out to do," Yeguete said. "We just started winning."
And they haven't stopped in more than three months.
"When you invest four years like these guys have invested, it means something to them, and they're going to carry it with them for the rest of their lives," Donovan said at the end of a day that began with a touching pre-game salute to a fab foursome looking to win its 113th game together. "To me, there were a lot of emotions and I'm proud of the way they handled themselves leading up to this game."
Into the game, too.
UF was frighteningly efficient on both ends in building a 22-point first-half lead on the Wildcats. The Gators shot a blistering 61.5 percent from the floor against the league's second-best field-goal percentage defense and went 7-for-12 from the 3-point line, including three each from backup forward Dorian Finney-Smith (11 points, 6 rebounds) and Michael Frazier II (9 points on his 20th birthday). Florida assisted on 14 of its 16 field goals through the first 20 minutes. The offense was in a beautfiul rhythm.
Oh, and on the other end, the Gators were sync also. Kentucky shot just 34.8 percent and made only eight field goals in the first period.
"We jumped on 'em early," Wilbekin said. "We forced turnovers and got out in the break.:"
Even with Wilbekin limited to just nine first-half minutes due to foul trouble.
The lead was 49-28 at halftime and the O'Dome faithful had to be thinking record-setting blowout the Cats had put on the Gators dozens of times over the years.
But Kentucky showed its fight, particularly power forward Julius Randle (16 points, 10 rebounds), who helped key a 15-0 run the likes of which this Florida team -- this defense -- had not experienced this season.
The Wildcats, with Randle beasting away in the post, managed to spread the UF defense out some and get the game to their liking.
UF led just 63-57 at the 12-minute mark.
The Gators, though, did not panic.
"In the huddle, as Kentucky made the run, the right things were being said," Donovan recounted. "There was a focus in their eyes. 'We're fine. Let's get this stop. Let's get a good possession. Next play.' They were communicating with each other."
Said Wilbekin: "We just tried to stay together, no matter how many points they scored in a row or how many shots we missed. We just kept huddling, just kept in each other's ears, saying the right things, and having confidence in other."
That formula had worked all season, so why not with history on the line?
"The seniors went out and made plays," Young said.
That's when Prather grabbed an outlet pass from Wilbekin and took a hard line to the basket, sweeping beneath the hoop for a reverse layup, absorbing a foul foul, completing a 3-point play to make it a 13-point lead.
After 7-foot center Dakari Johnson (9 points, 5 rebounds) scored on a post move at UK's end, Yeguete cancelled it out when Prather bounced a perfect pass through two Cats on a pick-and-roll slip. Yeguete flushed the ball with two hands.
Kentucky guard James Young (14 points) hit one of two free throws, then Young posted Johnson for a running, right-handed hook shot across the lane. The Gators led by 14.
"You have to understand [Flroida] is really good," UK coach John Calipari said. "That team just shot 60 percent [from the floor] and 60 percent from 3. That doesn't happen to us."
And when Alex Poythress missed for the Cats, Wilbekin came down, ran some offense, then buried a 3-point dagger to make it a 17-point game to set off a celebration that 2 minutes, 33 seconds later gave way to a net-cutting party and salute to SEC perfection.
"It feels amazing," Prather said.
That was after he and his senior brothers -- en mass -- kissed the UF floor right smack on the Gator head logo. Maybe a thank you. Maybe a goodbye. Maybe a little bit of both. And more.
In the locker room, Donovan told the players to enjoy their achievement and to be ready to seek new challenges when they return to work Monday.
Then came an ice-cold bucket of water over his head.
"This is the way to go out. You cannot script it any better," Young said. "You go 18-0, get to the cut the nets down on Michael Frazier's birthday, then kiss the floor and say goodbye to the fans ... ."
Even Young was a little overcome, overwhelmed by it all.