Florida seniors get day to remember

Before they walked off the court at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center – all four of them taking that last step in unison before they ran to the doors to join their teammates celebrating an 18-0- run through the Southeastern Conference schedule in the locker room – Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete and Casey Prather went to the Gator head at midcourt, got down on their knees and kissed the floor. Nothing could have been more appropriate than this, Florida’s four seniors saying good-bye in a perhaps corny but extremely sentimental way.

There was much to celebrate. Florida’s 84-65 thumping of Kentucky on Senior Day ended the regular season for the #1-ranked Gators (29-2, 18-0 SEC), who head into next week’s Southeastern Conference Tournament in Atlanta riding the wave of a 23-game winning streak and the first perfect 18-game run through the SEC in league history.

But the celebration won’t last long. For all the Gators have accomplished, there is much more ahead of them.

“Now we want to go on a 9-game winning streak,” Young said as he held court with a swarm of writers and photographers surrounding him outside the Florida locker room.

A 9-game winning streak will take the Gators through the SEC Tournament (Florida’s first game is next Friday at 1 p.m. at the Georgia Dome) and the three-weekend, 6-game grind that is the NCAA Tournament. In their three previous seasons, they’ve made it to the SEC Tournament title game twice only to lose and they’ve made it three straight years to the Elite Eight game in the NCAA Tournament only to see their season come to an end.

This year, they want much, much more.

“I don’t think it is mission accomplished,” Young said after he scored 18 points and grabbed seven rebounds in his final game at the O-Dome. “We’re in the right direction right now. The ultimate goal is to be national champions but I think we’re going in the right direction. It’s good to say we have really accomplished something but the sun is going to come up tomorrow and it will be time to get back to work.”

The four seniors came to work Saturday determined to prevent the emotions of a pre-game Senior Day ceremony getting the best of them. The O-Dome crowd of 12,604 made certain that this was the sendoff of sendoffs. The ovations were loud and long.

For all they’ve accomplished as Gators, Young, Wilbekin, Prather and Yeguete have endeared themselves to Florida fans who understood that these guys made a name for themselves the old-fashioned way – they earned it.

“Our fans … since I’ve been here 18 years, that was one of the greatest sendoffs I’ve ever seen for a senior class and our fans deserve a lot of credit for that. I’m thankful and appreciative,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.

Had the Senior Day ceremony lasted even a few seconds longer, Scottie Wilbekin wouldn’t have been able to contain himself. For all he’s gone through to get to this moment, Wilbekin perhaps looked at this day as a right of passage. He came to Florida a 17-year-old local kid who skipped his senior season at The Rock School to become a Gator after the Florida staff whiffed on seven other point guards.

If you go back to last June, Wilbekin wasn’t sure he would even be here to celebrate senior day. He ran afoul of the rules and stood across the desk from Donovan, who was ready to cut the cord and sign the transfer papers. Wilbekin was given the option of staying, but on Donovan’s terms and not his, which meant having to move back home with his parents and not being allowed to be part of the team until he had jumped through more hoops than he could count. He sat the first five games of this season to fulfill the terms of the suspension that Donovan handed out.

When he was announced to the crowd Saturday, Wilbekin came close but somehow avoided breaking down.

“I didn’t get really too emotional, but the one moment during the pregame when we were all standing their with our jerseys in the middle of the floor I got a little emotional,” Wilbekin said. “If it would have gone on for a few more seconds I might have shed a tear.

He didn’t cry, but he certainly gave Kentucky fans reasons to shed a tear. Scoreless in a first half in which he played fewer than 10 minutes due to foul trouble, Wilbekin delivered two dagger 3-pointers that ended any hope the Wildcats (22-9, 12-6 SEC) had of coming all the way back from a 21-point (49-28) halftime deficit.

Kentucky got on a 15-0 run that saw them trim Florida’s lead to 53-47 with 12:24 to go in the game. Kentucky was hot, Florida was self-destructing, missing the same shots they hit in the first half and turning the ball over three times during Kentucky’s impressive run.

Florida called time out after Dakari Johnson scored off an offensive rebound. As the Gators huddled with an all-too quiet O-Dome crowd stunned and expecting the worst, Donovan looked his seniors in the eye and saw nothing in the way of panic.

“In the huddle as Kentucky made a run the right things were being said,” Donovan said. “There was a focus in their eye … ‘Okay, we’re fine. Let’s get this stop. Let’s have a good possession here.’  I think the right things were being said in terms of their communication with each other.”

The 3-pointer that Wilbekin delivered from the right of the key 24 seconds after the time out was a wound to Kentucky’s heart. Then Prather came through with a slash to the rim for a layup and a pair of free throws that got the lead to 60-50. Wilbekin hit another pair of free throws with 8:04 to go and drove the lane for a layup banked high off the glass with 7:16 to go that made it a 12-point game. Prather got another free throw, Young scored on a sweeping hook shot, Prather delivered a 3-point play on a drive, finish and foul then made the perfect pass to Yeguete for a dunk. Young scored again and then it was time for Wilbekin to stab the Wildcats in the heart one more time with a very deep 3-ball from the right side, a good four feet beyond the arc.

That made it 77-60 with 2:31 to play. Kentucky was done.

“He does that,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said when asked about Wilbekin. “He’s done it all year.”

That Wilbekin has done it all year is particularly pleasing for University of Florida president Bernie Machen, who looks at Wilbekin as a poster child for the bigger mission that he sees for Donovan.

“I don’t know if there is a better person than Billy Donovan,” Machen said. “You look at how he stuck with Damontre Harris. You look at how he stuck with Chris Walker in that situation. Then look at what he did with Scottie. Scottie Wilbekin could be a lost soul right now but he’s not and I think he is forever headed in the right direction.”

All four of Florida’s seniors have done it all year and they are the primary reason the Gators are heading in the right direction – toward what could be Florida’s third NCAA basketball championship. Besides Young, who was the game’s leading scorer, Prather contributed 15 points three rebounds, two assists and a steal. Wilbekin came through with 13 after going scoreless in the first half. He had four assists and only one turnover. Yeguete provided tough defense, seven rebounds five points and an assist.

Altogether, the seniors combined for 51 points, 20 rebounds, seven assists, a blocked shot and a steal, a terrific end to their O-Dome careers, but, they couldn’t have done it by themselves. Saturday, they got plenty of help from their underlings.

On this day, redshirt sophomore Dorian Finney-Smith delivered 11 points, six rebounds, four assists, two blocked shots and tow steals; freshman Kasey Hill gave the Gators eight points and seven assists with only one turnover; sophomore Michael Frazier nailed three 3-pointers in the first half when the Gators were racing to their big lead and finished with nine points, two assists and two steals; DeVon Walker hit a 3-pointers, grabbed two rebounds and blocked a shot; and freshman Chris Walker grabbed a rebound and dunked in an alley-oop pass from Hill.

Everybody had a chance to contribute, but this day was truly about the seniors who weren’t about to let Kentucky spoil their day and bring an end to this phase of their ultra-successful season.

“We did what we have always done this year and that’s fight through, weather the storm and finish the game.”

They finished the game and their reward for four years well done was a chance to cut down the nets one more time, kiss the floor together at midcourt and then take that last step off the court as one.

The celebration will end Sunday. Then the focus turns to Atlanta and beyond. Yeguete walked off the floor with nets around his neck and a sign that read “18-0 and more to go.”

Donovan put it all in perspective.

“Celebrate this because it was really special,” Donovan said. “I don’t want anything to take away from what these guys have accomplished up to this point in time. We have to really get emotionally, physically and mentally re-charged again and not live into this for the next week and walk into Atlanta living in it. We’ve got to be able to put this behind us. They need to come back inspired to take on the next challenge.”

Previous articleShore shines early, Gators win late
Next articleGators take series in extra innings
Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.