Rise-up Gators basketball fans! No, not to clap and cheer . . . you did plenty of that this past weekend.
Nope, stand and take a well-deserved bow!
Florida hoops fanatics shelled-out ($$), showed-up and showed-out during an extended four-day tournament in Charleston, South Carolina . . . cheering the Gators Men’s basketball team to three consecutive wins and a Charleston Classic Tournament title.
“Gator Nation definitely helped us in Charleston,” said Assistant Coach Darris Nichols.
Entering the event with a modest 2-2 record, gone was not only a #6 preseason ranking, but also early excitement that had seemingly given way to frustration.
I’ll be honest and admit second-guessing my own trip amid the tepid start. But I felt the enthusiasm re-infused upon entering the small, intimate arena – a setting that provided fans a unique, opportunity to be on top of the action.
And Gators fans took full advantage of an open-seating policy – one that allowed them to see it all, while being seen and heard!
“My family and I were able to sit first row (media side) for St. Joe’s and Miami games. We were literally right behind St. Joe’s broadcast team the first game and behind Mick and Lee for the Miami game,” said Ed Busto who, with his wife and two children, drove up from Newberry, Fl. “For someone who hadn’t sat first level in the O-Dome since he was a student, sitting this close to the floor was a special treat“
But the real treat would be on the court, where Florida held on for a win against Saint Joseph’s in the opening round, and pummeled Miami the following day, advancing to the finals.
For each contest, Florida fans were there – and in growing numbers. The Gators enjoyed a sizeable fan advantage over its in-state rival, and raucously cheered on a 20-point victory.
“We felt the love from our fans the whole week,” said Nichols.
Not feeling the Gators love, however, were the referees – who Florida fans voraciously booed off the court at halftime, and probably deservedly so! Call it coincidence, but from my vantage point the second half was much better officiated.
Heck, take another bow, Gators fans!
Speaking of love, the players and coaches showed the same to its adoring fan base.
“After the Miami game, we waited for the team to leave the arena. We got to meet the whole team and Coach White. . . and my 12-year-old old son got pictures with every player. He was giddy with excitement,” relayed Busto. “One thing that stood out about the players, and coach, was just how exceedingly friendly, polite, and approachable they all were”.
And while I didn’t meet Coach White or the players during my trip, I did get a picture with Albert. Yup, he was there, and so to were the Dazzlers. (No, guys – I didn’t get a picture with the Dazzlers)
Their attendance may not seem noteworthy, but it was . . . as it broke a longstanding policy of not sending ‘spirit squads’ to regular season tournaments.
And so, stand up UAA – and take your bow!
But the best performance was reserved for Sunday night, and a finals match-up with a highly ranked Xavier team – and its own impressive fan contingent. Though maybe slightly outnumbered, the Gators crowd would not concede nor relent.
“It was like being in with the Rowdies . . . constant noise and cheering. We were either as loud or louder,” said Ron Rollins, a fan who drove 9 hours from Pembroke Pines. “I think we each knew we were outnumbered – and we witnessed how the Xavier fans were the night before versus UCONN – we knew we had our hands full. So we knew we had to be individually louder”
Florida was louder – on the court and in the stands. In the end, it was the Gators who cheered best and last – edging the Musketeers, 70-65, capturing the title and capping an incredible weekend.
As Noah Locke hoisted the trophy at center-court, Coach Mike White walked to each side of the arena. He waved to the still roaring fans and offered his own word, “Go Gators! Thank you all for coming out,” he said.
Soon after, the players did similar – giving waves of appreciation as they left the court as champions.
It was not long before the fans also filed out – champions in my book.
Take a bow, and ready yourselves for an encore performance . . . errr . . . performances! The season is young, and once again, there is plenty of reason for excitement.