ARLINGTON, Texas — Whoever first uttered the phrase “silence is golden,” clearly never sat in the locker room of the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament after they experience a season-ending defeat. Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin and Will Yeguete exit, whisked away to the main stage for interviews, what remains when they leave is a wake that their teammates take part in without their core group of leaders in the aftermath of the 63-53 loss to UConn.
The silence was deafening as the doors swung open and the horde of media rushed in. You could never imagine how loud the electric humming of a fridge full of Powerade can sound until one sits in the middle of a large locker room that has puffy-eyed college kids sitting on its outskirts. A reporter’s question breaks the silence, cutting through to ask a question to Casey Prather, whose eyes are still red and filled with tears.
The Final Four defeat registers as a bookend to an historic winning streak. It started after the team’s first loss to UConn, 30 games were the meat sandwiched in between, and the final defeat the other piece of bread. For the Gators, the meat was good, but the bread is what leaves the bad taste in their mouths as they take the last bite of the 2014 season, for some it is the final bite of their careers in orange and blue.
“On offense, we just couldn’t really get anything going,” Wilbekin said. “They were being really aggressive and we couldn’t really get into our offense. We weren’t moving the ball as well. A couple of us were having bad shooting nights.”
That’s all it takes in the tournament, just one off night by more than one guy and the season can come to a screeching halt.
The Gators came out of the gates with fire and intensity, knocking the Huskies back on their heels. UConn didn’t even score a point until the 16:03 mark in the first half, and UF jumped out to a 16-4 early lead. From then on, UConn was in complete control, a dominating performance over the remaining 28:49 of the game outscoring the Gators 59-37.
Nothing Florida could do was good enough on this night.
The Gators were led in scoring by Young’s dominant 19-point performance and Prather’s 15-point effort submitted quietly from the slasher who has spent most of the second half of his senior season in the scoring doldrums. Those two outputs weren’t enough to overcome UConn, especially a dominant 20-point and 10-rebound performance from forward DeAndre Daniels whose long 6-9 frame jumped out of the gym on multiple occasions.
It also wasn’t enough to overcome Florida’s own offensive ineptitude. Its 53 points scored ties for the second-lowest total registered in the entire careers of its four senior leaders. It is UF’s lowest point total in an NCAA tournament game since a 2003 beating at the hands of Michigan St. 68-46.
Michael Frazier II tied his lowest point output all season with only three. His make from the land of plenty was the opening basket of the game and UF’s only basket from beyond the arc all game. It was Florida’s lowest three-point output of the entire season as a team, 1-10 in total.
They also didn’t share well, only notching three assists as a team against 11 turnovers. The assist number was a season-low as well for Florida, something Wilbekin chalked up to dominant UConn guards.
“That’s crazy,” Wilbekin said when he was told the stat in the postgame press conference. “That’s not usually what we do. All credit goes to them and their guards and the way they were denying and putting pressure on us. We weren’t taking care of the ball. When we would get by them, we wouldn’t keep the ball tight and they would reach from behind. We were just being too loose with it.”
Florida got its deficit down to three at one point, they were close, oh-so close to snatching this one back with momentum on its side but it wasn’t enough.
And then it was over. The game, the season and four seniors’ valiant Florida careers came to an end, then 15 macabre 18-22 year olds are left to wonder what happened, and try to process just how it all could end so harshly.
Head coach Billy Donovan has been quoted many times in this NCAA tournament as saying that there is no easy exit for the 67 teams in the field that don’t cut the nets down on the first Monday in April, and he is right. His son Billy has an interesting perspective, being able to watch his father on the ride that has been this season.
“The one thing [after the game] that he really made clear,” the younger Donovan said. “Was that he thanked the seniors for everything because at the end of the day when you look back on the season they’re the ones that got us here, and you know it’s probably one of the worst feelings he’ll ever have.”
He went on to say “right now it’s awful. But probably looking back at it, it will be something I’ll cherish forever.”
Sophomore DeVon Walker sits by himself on the floor with a towel over his knees. A blank, stunned look on his face, like the one you have when you’re told you’ve lost a loved one. After he’s asked a question it takes him a full 15 seconds to collect himself and wrench the answer out of his broken heart to translate his feelings into words.
“It’s tough, man,” Walker said. “For everything just to stop — to come to a halt. I’ll never be apart of this team again; I’ll never get the chance to play with these guys again.” (He pauses once more.) “It’s over — it’s over.”
When you walk into Florida’s locker room the first thing that greets you is an oversized sign that reads: “the road ends here,” and Saturday night, it did. Of course it’s true; this is college basketball’s final days, its championship rounds. But for the Gators, the end of the road was sudden, and two days too early.