Someday, Florida will look back on this season as a tremendous accomplishment. A fifth Final Four, a school-record 30 game winning streak, SEC championships.
But not Saturday, and the Gators may need more than the usual amount of time to heal.
The season wasn’t supposed to end with a national semifinals loss to Connecticut, but before Florida walked off the court on the bitter end of a 63-53 decision, as the Huskies’ Shabazz Napier dribbled off the game’s final seconds, Florida players gathered near the free-throw line for consolation hugs and pats.
“I can’t really explain how I feel right now because it hasn’t hit me,” Florida senior center Patric Young said. “This team was so special.”
If this was a national championship or bust quest for the Gators, they busted.
A team that had grown up together and experienced the disappointment of reaching the regional final in each of their first three years, seemed destined to cut down the nets for the third time in the program’s history.
“We didn’t go out the way we would have liked to,” senior guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “So we’ll just have to try and remember all the good things we did until this point. It’s hard right now.”
Defense, which had been Florida’s calling card all year, abandoned the team in the game’s final 29 minutes.
After starting the game two for 9 from the floor, Connecticut made 22 of its final 34 shots.
They came from deep as three-pointers from DeAndre Daniels and Ryan Boatright on consecutive possessions put a charge into what had been a dominated Huskies offense with about 8 minutes remaining in the first half.
But Connecticut started to resemble the team that had flexed its muscles in East Region victories over Iowa State and Michigan State. Spartans Coach Tom Izzo, watching the game from the front row of AT&T Stadium had to be the least surprised person in the building.
But everybody was stunned by Florida’s inability to get a stop and mount a comeback.
Connecticut’s three-point lead reached 10 about 7 minutes into the second half. Florida fought to reduce it to three twice, the last time at 43-40.
The Gators defense let them down here. Twice, UConn big man Daniels slipped behind defenders for lob passes as part of a 7-0 run.
After the second one, prompting Gators coach Billy Donovan to burn a time out with 5:28 remaining, Boatright walked toward the Connecticut fan collection in the lower bowl and pointed in confidence.
Plenty of time remained, but this one felt decided.
Boatright was the critical component. Not just his 13 points, but his defense on Wilbekin.
“The difference in the game is Scottie couldn’t live in the lane like he had all year long for us,” Donovan said. “He had a really, really hard time getting around Boatright.”
Florida simply hadn’t found itself in a similar situation this season. They had won all of the NCAA Tournament games by double digits, never trailing in the second half of any of the previous four.
There had been tough outs during SEC play, a one-point victory over Kentucky in the league tournament title game, narrow escapes at Mississippi and Vanderbilt.
But experience allowed the Gators to survive those games. Four senior starters — including shutdown defenders like Wilbekin and Young — always brought Florida home.
The only times it didn’t happen were early in the season, against two teams in the Final Four, Wisconsin and Connecticut. The Huskies’ Napier beat the buzzer for the victory on Dec. 2. Florida didn’t lose after that until Saturday.
The game was especially painful for Wilbekin. He battled cramps in his legs just as the second half and had to get iced down. The final college stat line for Wilbekin, the SEC player of the year, reads four points on two of nine shooting with three turnovers.
As the final seconds wound down, Donovan got that sinking feeling.
“You’re kind of sitting there and you realize this is getting to come to an end,” Donovan said. “I don’t know what my emotions now will be like be Monday or Tuesday when I have a chance to get some private time and reflect by myself.”