(Photo: Trevor Sikkema/WRUF)
“For me as a coach, this is the greatest regular season I’ve ever been a part of.”
– Florida head coach Billy Donovan
College basketball’s No. 1 team knew this game would not be their last, but for a certain four, it would be the end of an era. In Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete and Patric Young’s final game in the O’Connell Center, the Gators Men’s basketball team was able to defeat the No. 25 ranked Kentucky Wildcats 84-65 on Saturday.
On a Senior Day that was filled with pre-game emotions, the first half was quite possibly Florida’s best all season.
Kentucky came into the 2013-2014 college basketball season as the No. 1 ranked team in the country; their talent was as high as any team’s despite their 22-8 record.
The jump ball went Kentucky’s way, but that was one of the only things that did all day.
Florida started the game 1-0 (off of a Casey Prather free throw) and never looked back — Kentucky never led at any point during the contest.
For a game that had so much meaning behind it and so many reasons to be a little tense or stressed, the Gators looked very calm. Florida forward Dorian Finney-Smith was in a shooting slump during the month of February, but he started the game hot with two 3-pointers (and ended the game with 11 points). This propelled Florida to a 20-9 lead midway through the first half.
The game then began to trickle away from the Wildcats who were relying heavily on the shooting of James Young early on (three 3-pointers in the first 11 minutes) and not much else. Five-star freshman and team-leading scorer Julius Randle was held to just two points in the entire first half.
However, the Cats were able to keep themselves within striking distance until Florida’s Michael Frazier II hit back-to-back 3-pointers within 30 seconds of each other to extend the lead to 19 points with 4:12 left in the first half.
An underlying key to Florida’s first half run and separation on the scoreboard was the bench play from Kasey Hill. Donovan said after the game that Hill gave his team the chance to pull away, even with their senior point guard (Wilbekin) on the bench in foul trouble.
“I thought it was Kasey Hill’s best game by far that he’s had here,” Donovan said. “I thought he was aggressive. He was physical. He was tough. He played with energy… Scottie goes out with two fouls and Kasey ran our team.”
The half ended as lopsided as the scoreboard read, 49-28, but Kentucky knew there were 40 minutes of basketball for a reason; Florida looked like they’d forgotten that as the second half began, and with it, Kentucky’s final stand.
At the beginning of the season, UK had what some called the greatest recruiting class ever. UK fans even made 40-0 T-shirts to foretell their team not losing a game this season. But here they were, 22-8, barely even ranked and down more than 20 points in the last game of the regular season. They’d heard all the criticism, all the hate, all the disappointment, and they’d had enough, or at least one man did — Julius Randle.
On the determination of Randle, Kentucky managed to pull the score back to a reasonable 53-47, well within striking distance. During UK’s 19-4 run, Randle gave his team seven points and four rebounds.
After the game, every Florida player reiterated how Donovan told them the punch back was coming. The rest of the game would be decided on how they could take it and fight back.
“We talked about it at halftime with Coach Donovan,” Florida forward Casey Prather said. “Coming out (of the half) we got in the huddle, we talked about them coming on the run. We said we just have to fight hard and keep pushing.”
As the game went on, Florida would do just that — fight back.
Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin made a few shots that seemed to jump start Florida’s offense again, and that was enough to see their battle through.
Florida’s four seniors finished the game with 51 of the team’s 84 total points with Patric Young leading the way with 18.
For UF, one goal is complete, but in an afternoon filled with individual specialization, Patric Young and the rest of the seniors made it very clear; their work is far from over; their dreams are far from reality.
“We’ve accomplished a lot of things this year,” Young said. “We haven’t really been ‘Oh, yeah, now we’re good. Now we can relax.’ We want to end it all. We want to win nine games in a row. Nine games in a row is the goal from here on out. Win the SEC tournament, then six more in the NCAA tournament and be crowned champions.”
For audio on the quotes above, click here: