ARLINGTON, Texas — With 1:04 left on the clock and Michigan ahead by 25, Florida seniors Erik Murphy, Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario walked to the bench for the final time in their Gator uniforms.
Gators coach Billy Donovan waited with a hug as the trio checked out of Florida’s 79-59 loss to the Wolverines in the South Region championship Sunday.
Two hours earlier at tipoff, Florida’s three seniors longed for more than a hug.
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They hoped to climb a ladder here at Cowboys Stadium and cut down the nets for winning a regional title and reaching the Final Four.
They wanted to avoid another trip to the Elite Eight ending with a loss.
More than anything, they wanted to keep playing and have a shot at the national championship they coveted from the first practice of their final season.
In the end, a magical ending to March Madness wasn’t meant to be for the senior trio. That was evident from the start as the Wolverines opened the game on a 13-0 run and never looked back on the way to reaching their first Final Four in 20 years.
In a somber Gators locker room afterward, the reality of Sunday’s loss struck harshly.
Murphy sat on a bench next to Boynton, taking questions with his head titled toward the floor and his eyes filled with tears.
“This is the toughest one,” Murphy said. “It’s the last one.”
In the final game of his college career, Murphy had perhaps his worst game. He finished 0-for-11 shooting and failed to score a point for the only time this season. In two games in Arlington, Murphy made only 2 of 18 shots and scored four points.
As Murphy tried the best he could to remain composed, teammate Patric Young offered support.
“I just feel bad for the guy,” Young said. “I mean, in your last game to go 0 for , I just feel terrible for him because I know he’s trying. He is always giving his best effort out there. I don’t know what it was today.”
As he glanced over toward a dejected Murphy, freshman Michael Frazier shared the same sentiment as Young.
“Great leader, great player,” Frazier said. “He really helped me throughout the season. This loss is not on him. He’s had a great season, a great career. We’re nowhere close to being here without him.”
Murphy refused to blame the flu-like symptoms he battled earlier in the week or the cavernous backdrop at Cowboys Stadium on his shooting woes in Arlington. He had several good looks at the basket Sunday but couldn’t get anything to drop through the net.
“We just came out and they were way better than us today,” he said.
Meanwhile, Boynton and junior forward Will Yeguete led the Gators with 13 points apiece Sunday. Boynton concluded his UF career with 2,033 career points, second on the school’s all-time list behind Ronnie Williams (2,090).
A four-year starter, Boynton played in the NCAA tournament all four seasons and led the team in scoring his freshman and junior seasons.
He and Murphy arrived together in the summer of 2009 and finished their careers with a 105-40 record, including a 9-4 mark in the NCAA tournament, three Elite Eight appearances and two SEC regular-season titles.
Not one to show much emotion, Boynton stayed true to form as he tried to put his career in perspective shortly after the game.
“I feel the loss. I’m just not showing it. It flies by. I don’t regret anything in staying these four years,” Boynton said. “I’m honored to play for Coach Donovan. I think he’s the best coach in the country, what he’s accomplished.
“And I’ve played with great players, I’ve met some great people. I’m proud of my team to come this far. It is disappointing to not make it [to the Final Four] my senior season. But to make it to the Elite Eight is an honor. Some players don’t even make it to the NCAA tournament.”
Rosario joined Boynton and Murphy at UF after starting his career at Rutgers. He sat out the 2010-11 season due to NCAA transfer rules and spent last season coming off the bench.
As a senior Rosario started 36 games and led the Gators in scoring a team-high 16 times, including his best scoring game since transferring: 25 points in Florida’s win over Minnesota to advance to the Sweet 16.
Rosario finished with nine points on Sunday.
“This has been a wonderful season for me, Kenny and Murph,” Rosario said. “This team was special this year. For me to have an opportunity to play in the Elite Eight again, and just to get this far, all the ups and downs I’ve been through personally, it was a special season for me. I’m just thankful for these guys and Billy believing in me. I’m lost for words.”
The mark this season’s senior class left on the program is what Donovan will remember.
The seniors helped a program that had appeared in back-to-back NITs — following back-to-back national championship seasons of 2006 and 2007 — climb back to relevancy during March Madness.
Three consecutive trips to the Elite Eight had never happened at Florida before they came along.
“There’s a lot of really, really good things that these kids have done,” Donovan said. “It’s not about me. I’ve been fortunate enough to be [in the Final Four] as a player and several times as a coach. I feel more upset for Boynton, Rosario and Murphy, who didn’t get a chance and have come so close.
“I’ll always be thankful and appreciative because they’ve always handled themselves with class. They’ve worked hard and given me everything they had.”