Michigan 79, Florida 59: Without enough to win, Gators' Final Four dream becomes nightmare

USA TODAY Sports

Florida spent the 2012-13 season smoking teams with hot shooting and great defense. In a season-ending loss to Michigan, both things deserted the Gators, and the better team won.

96 seconds into Florida's Elite Eight game, its third in as many years, the Gators trailed Michigan 13-0. 24 seconds later, Patric Young picked up his second foul and headed to the bench. After that, it got worse.

Florida took the loss by a 79-59 count, its largest in NCAA Tournament play since 2003 and its largest in a basketball game since March 2004. It took the loss to a team that was thoroughly better on this day, one that led by double digits with 17:13 left in the first half and never took its foot off the pedal.

Michigan has played as well as any team in this NCAA Tournament, knocking off excellent VCU, Kansas, and Florida teams en route to its first Final Four since the Fab Five. But this isn't about Michigan.

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This is about Erik Murphy, first and foremost.

Murphy was the core of Florida's offense in 2012-13, making 72 threes, exactly one more than Florida three-point king Kenny Boynton did, and showing a deft touch around the rim. He was never a great defender, nor really ever a good one, but he developed into a serviceable one around the basket, and a decent rebounder. He will play professionally somewhere, probably in the NBA.

Not a bit of is likely to console him today, after his worst game as a Gator.

Murphy couldn't get right no matter how hard he tried on this Sunday. He went 0-for-11 from the field, and 0-for-2 from three. Leaners inside didn't go. Fadeaway threes didn't go. Nearly everything he shot hit the front rim. And he lumbered slowly out on every closeout, leaving the image of Nik Stauskas pumping in another one as his lasting memory.

Murphy kept playing, and kept trying — he had eight rebounds, and four offensive rebounds, leading Florida in the former and all players in the latter — but he just wasn't in this game from the start. I think he was ill, though I'm not sure we'll ever get confirmation on that. Billy Donovan probably kept him in the game a little longer than I would have, but on a day when nothing worked, it's not like there were great alternatives.

Murphy's career ends without a Final Four. Fate can be cruel.

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This is about Kenny Boynton, forever unloved by many.

Boynton was Florida's best player today, a rarity in his senior season, when Florida had so many good players who shared the title. He knifed in on his customary slashes to the basket, made four of his eight shots, rattled in the Gators' first three, and played great defense on Tim Hardaway, Jr., who finished 3-for-13 from the field.

Boynton's 13 points led Florida, and yet they weren't nearly enough. And Boynton being the best version of what he has always been — a very good 1-on-1 player whose height limits him on offense more than his quickness helps, and whose defense was always stellar and never spectacular — helped get Florida to this stage, but wasn't what Florida needed on it.

Boynton is as stoic a Gator as I can remember, and seems only to show emotion when it is demanded of him, like to sell contact on his drives to the hoop.

Boynton has played more minutes and made more NCAA Tournament starts than any other Florida player ever. None of them have come in a Final Four, and he's the only player in NCAA history to start and lose three consecutive Elite Eight games.

Fate can be so cruel. I'll love Kenny Boynton forever, though.

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This is about Mike Rosario, whose reaction to Florida's loss has been one of the bright spots of the day so far.

For Rosario, who couldn't play in 2011's Elite Eight loss to Butler and played just six minutes in 2012's Elite Eight loss to Louisville, getting here and being an integral part of a winning team was likely its own reward.

Rosario was part of one of the great high school basketball programs in America at St. Anthony's in New Jersey, then spent two years as the best player on bad Rutgers teams. When Florida made its Elite Eight run with a slew of seniors in 2011, Rosario was watching, and couldn't play; when Florida made its Elite Eight run in 2012, Rosario was on the bench, because Bradley Beal was the far better player at his position, and because he was a defensive liability.

This year was different. Rosario was calmer, more comfortable in Florida's offense as a starter than as an instant-offense guy off the bench, and better as a defender, because Donovan constantly challenged him to be and because he learned from those challenges. Donovan did so many things with so many players on this team that made them better players and better people, but what he did with Rosario probably changed his life more than any other player. And Rosario hasn't sounded anything but thankful for that for a second.

For him, this ending is cruel, but better than one he could have dared to imagine at Rutgers. It's as bad as it was last year, but not — at least he could launch shots and try to defend shooters in this game, and at least he was good enough to be named to the all-South Region team. At least he had a chance.

Fate can be kind.

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This is about Florida's underclassmen, who were among the bright spots in this game.

Scottie Wilbekin made one of six shots and scored four points, but he harried Trey Burke all night, and though Michigan's incandescent point guard finished with 15 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists, he made just five of 16 shots.

Patric Young had eight points and seven rebounds despite spending much of the first half on the bench. Will Yeguete tied Boynton for Florida's scoring lead with 13 points, made five of five shots, and wriggled around the basket well; he played as well as he has at any point since his injury in a game that will be forgotten sooner rather than later. Casey Prather had seven points, two rebounds, and two assists. Dillon Graham and Braxton Ogbueze each hit shots in garbage time.

The future is bright for Florida, with a significant chance that the team's four most talented players next year will be transfers Damontre Harris and Dorian Finney-Smith and incoming freshmen Kasey Hill and Chris Walker. If Florida can be as good as it was on defense this year with Murphy and Rosario starting at two of the positions on the court, it could be even better in 2013-14. Hill could also be the best point guard of the Billy Donovan era, and might not start; Walker and Finney-Smith are among the most impressive athletes who Florida has ever recruited.

We won't be able to see that team until November, and yet we'll spend the time between now and then forgetting about this one, the one that went to a third Elite Eight, won an SEC title, came within a half of sweeping the SEC Tournament and regular season titles, dominated team after team, produced highlight after highlight, never lost at home, and generally conducted itself as well as you can ask college students to conduct themselves.

We'll forget that this team had less talent than that one, because that talent will be invigorating, just like we forgot that the 2011 and 2012 teams had more talent than this one, because time made us do that.

We'll forget the great things from this season — playing a game on a boat, incinerating two very good teams in non-conference play, Murphy's flu game, turning the O'Dome back into a house of horrors, Kenny at Yale, Billy Donovan finally getting a lot more of his due, Pat starting a fast break with a block off the backboard, doubling up South Carolina, Scottie's turnaround stepback three at Missouri, every Casey Prather dunk, Rosario pantsing Christophe Varidel, winning 29 games by double digits — because time will let us do that, too.

Nothing that is not objective lasts in sports, just the numbers and the records and the titles. And yet we don't watch for the numbers or the records or the titles, but the ride. We can be so strange.

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After all, this is, at its heart, about a game that we are lucky to get to watch, and one that players are lucky to get to play.

Two hours after Florida was down big in the first half of its game, the Louisville team that beat Florida in last year's Elite Eight suffered a fate far worse than the one that befell Florida on this day. Kevin Ware, another in a long line of great, quick Louisville guards, went up to defend a jump shot and came down horribly wrong, suffering a broken leg that is among the worst ever injuries suffered in sports, the sort that is accompanied not by timetables for recovery but by wonders about whether life will ever be the same.

Ware suffered that injury right in front of his bench. His teammates will forever have to live with the sights and sounds of one of their brothers in unimaginable agony; his coaches will have to live with those sights and sounds, but about one of their surrogate songs; his friends and family will have to deal with what should have been one of the greatest moments of his life becoming one of his worst.

For young people, and for athletes especially, health is so often taken for granted that a lack of it can be world-rocking. Florida's players lost a game, but maintained their health.

Their fate could have been far worse.

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Rudyard Kipling's "If" is the poem that I most often think of in the context of sports. ESPN used it once, I believe, for the 2006 Rose Bowl, to illustrate the challenge facing Texas and USC. It's all about facing challenges and overcoming them, no matter how they happen, but I remember the first part best: "If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you."

In sports, and especially in team sports, sticking to a routine is what works best. Florida did that so often this year that it earned the Gators the top spot in KenPom's efficiency ratings; that spot is, of course, no guarantee of success, but is good evidence of how a team has played. I thought Florida was the better team this season; I still think Florida wins more games against Michigan than not, because I think Michigan starts slower than 13-0 and Stauskas doesn't go 6-for-6 from three, but I can't for a second deny that Michigan was the better team today.

That's what the NCAA Tournament, probably the hardest thing to win in sports, requires, six times: Being the better team on a given day. Florida was in its first three games of this NCAA Tournament, and not in its fourth. That happened in 2011, and in 2012.

But Florida didn't deviate from what it was all year in that fourth game, or, at least, didn't get as far from it as the situation could have dictated. It didn't stop driving, as it did in both of those years, and stop winning; it just never started winning.

Going inside early was always something Florida tried to do, whether to get cheap points before defenses set in or to keep Young engages in games by getting him early touches or to lure defenses away from shooters by giving them concerns on the interior. Losing Patric Young to foul trouble was something Florida had only dealt with a few times, but Young ended up playing 25 minutes, not off his typical average by much, and only really altered when Donovan could steal minutes without him, not how. Murphy playing like he was on his deathbed has never been so pronounced, but he played just 22 minutes, his smallest total since his first game back from a January rib injury; Donovan tried him, and yanked him, and tried him, and yanked him. The lazy passes had always been a problem, but Florida had almost always been able to cover for them.

The game plan wasn't much different, or riskier, than any Florida used all year, but it's hard to come back from being down 13 points, no matter when it happens, and especially against good teams. (Florida came back from 11 down against Florida Gulf Coast two nights ago, and in the first half, but it took Herculean work on defense against a much less talented team to do that.)

All the familiar stuff wasn't working, and the hole Florida dug was just too big to climb out of — in a way, Florida lost to Michigan in the same fashion that Florida lost to Arkansas, and the same fashion that many, many teams have lost to Florida this season, by sticking to its bread and butter against a team that toasted it regardless.

But Florida never quit searching for good shots (possibly to its detriment, as a few bad threes falling could have changed the game), and never quit trying to get stops, a combination that got the lead down from 24 at its widest to 11 in the second half. The same combination helped the lead balloon to 25 points before Florida closed with its 5-0 Graham/Ogbueze run.

It was all they had, and, on this day, it wasn't enough. But I'm proud they gave that much. Good coaching, like good parenting, like good anything, is about figuring out how to get the most out of whatever you have. These Gators did that.

And in all kinds of weather, they all stuck together. Thank you all for being with me, with us, and with them on that ride.

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