UConn 63, Florida 53: The Forever Gators died for each other, and will live on

Tom Pennington

Florida's unbelievable 2014 season ended on Saturday. Its legacy has only just begun.

It has become easier and easier, with modern science, to determine a cause of death.

Yesterday, for the Florida Gators, it was a blend of the causes that led to their only two defeats of the 2013-14 season. Just as at Wisconsin, Florida built an early 16-4 lead, then watched it vanish thanks to a hail of threes; just as in their first loss to UConn, the Gators could not effectively deal with the Huskies' ball pressure on defense, which again all but erased Michael Frazier II, and could not stop Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright from creating. There were precious few ways to beat this Florida team, but deploying brilliant guards, guarding as ferociously as Florida does, and making threes was probably the optimal strategy, and UConn did so wonderfully.

Because we learn more and more about death with each passing, building knowledge from end after end, we have also gotten better and better at preventing those demises. These Gators of the hardwood have, too: After three years of defensive lapses and three-dependent offense left Florida blue in the Elite Eight, the 2013-14 edition knew how to apply the clamps on defense and leave bruises on offense, and got to this Final Four stage for the first time since 2007 because of that. That those new tricks produced the same old dispiriting result on Saturday doesn't diminish their value, nor the work done by Florida to this point.

This team won more games than any other band of Gators, won every game it played against SEC competition, surpassed its own high bar for tournament success by breaking through at a level that bedeviled it, and made the whole of Gator Nation about as proud as it has ever been.

But death is inevitable, and this team died. It lost to UConn on Saturday night in the Final Four, in a 63-53 nightmare of a game. Florida produced one final unbelievable result in a season full of them.

And though we know much about death and its causes, and know its inevitability as dark truth, we're still missing one piece of understanding, and always will.

We don't know what happens after death.

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Tears happened in the Florida locker room last night.

Everyone cried, I was told. Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete, and Patric Young were able to compose themselves enough to go to the NCAA-mandated press conference with Billy Donovan; Casey Prather, the fourth horseman of their wonderful, unforgettable senior class, could not, even if he had wanted to, because only three players take the stage in these NCAA press conferences.

For the first time in my life, I was a part of a group of guys that were really willing to bleed for one another.— Patric Young

Those four men will ply their trade as professional basketball players for as long as their bodies let them. Young is likely headed to the NBA, as a second-round pick; if he can replicate his defensive intensity and continue to improve as an offensive player, he could be a valuable frontcourt reserve. Wilbekin might be an NBA player, too, but he is more physically limited than Young, and prone to the sorts of off nights like Saturday's that make his defense his only asset. He'll have to earn his spot on the end of a bench.

Casey Prather, so good as a driver and capable as a defender, likely isn't big enough to be a great NBA small forward, nor is his shot good enough to make him a reliable shooting guard. Falling between those cracks will force him to ply his trade in the D-League, or overseas, and hope for a cup of coffee. Will Yeguete lacks an NBA-caliber offensive game, but his energy and rebounding savvy will make him a fine player in his native France. (Allez, Willy.)

Those four players wanted so badly to go out as the ultimate winners, something only one team can do each season. Moreover, they wanted to have what they had forever: This team was a family, one on an endless working vacation, and it wanted this long, strange, wonderful trip to go on as long as possible, because none of the brothers could conceive of anything better.

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The brothers left behind will carry those seniors' memories forward.

Frazier, the adopted senior, had maybe the worst game of his career on Saturday. He will come back with more game than the one that allowed him to be pigeonholed as a shooter, and his shot may yet get better. Dorian Finney-Smith, the adopted Gator, will have a larger role on a team structured around him, rather than one he contributed to.

Chris Walker, who suffered the first loss of his collegiate career — his first loss on a basketball court since AAU ball in 2012, I believe — on the night, was shattered. This Florida basketball family is not his first, but has loved him well, and he loves it, too. Kasey Hill, so good and so young, will grow up and get better; he might even develop a jumper.

DeVon Walker could be next year's Finney-Smith in terms of sixth man contribution. Damontre Harris may be next year's Finney-Smith in terms of pleasantly surprising production; Eli Carter might beat him to that spot, though. Dillon Graham could give Florida a shooter off the bench. Talented freshmen — waterbug point guard Chris Chiozza, burly combo guard Brandone Francis, and lanky tweener Devin Robinson — will fill holes.

Most of all, these Gators learned how to win from seniors who had to learn how not to win the hard way, over and over and over. Hard work is a prerequisite for success at the highest levels in college basketball, but talent is often the difference between great teams and champions — it was for these Gators — and Billy Donovan can use the specter of this incredible team to remind all future teams that hard work can forge great individual talent into a collective far greater than its constituent parts.

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But while we know what the players on Florida's 2013-14 basketball team — the Forever Gators, maybe, if there ever were a Florida team that deserved that honorific — will do, we do not know what their legacy will be.

It was one of the most special experiences I've had being around a group of guys away from the court maybe since I've been in coaching. — Billy Donovan


Will it be one of the team that finally got Florida back over the hump? Three straight Elite Eights made the teams that Prather, Wilbekin, Yeguete, and Young were part of before this one both accomplished and disappointing, with the losses at the cruelest stage of the NCAA Tournament — the one before the Final Four spotlight — overshadowing their accomplishments.

Will it be one belonging to the best team in SEC history? Florida never, ever lost a game against its conference foes, including the Kentucky team that will at least play for a title on Monday, practically unprecedented in a major conference in the modern era, and totally unprecedented since the addition of the three-point shot, David's favorite sling.

Will it be one dotted with the nouns used to canonize college athletics as something special and wonderful? Family, loyalty, friendship, teamwork, drive, diligence, desire, responsibility — these Gators were or had or evinced all of them.

Or will it be one with a final chapter all about how the Gators, as the No. 1 overall seed and NCAA Tournament favorite and Final Four favorite, failed their hardest test? How there just wasn't enough at the end to beat teams with better players? How a 30-game winning streak and the best winning percentage in school history don't mean a thing because the Gators didn't get rings?

All of these are possible. And the legacy you remember will largely depend on the tellers of the story.

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Let the Gators tell it, and the story has a happy ending of sorts.

"This game is not changing anything, regardless of how I feel, of my relationship with them," Yeguete said in his postgame interview. "They're great guys. I love them, love to be around them."

"I think that everybody will remember this season for the team that we were able to become, because at the beginning of the year, it didn't look like we would be much of a team," Wilbekin said. "Even though it's hard right now, I'm sure that I'll look back on this year and be really proud of the guys that were standing next to me and just us as a team."

"For me personally, where they were as individuals and where they were as a team to where they came from in terms of becoming a team," Billy Donovan said, "I mean, it was one of the most special experiences I've had being around a group of guys away from the court maybe since I've been in coaching."

Young, the team's loudest leader and best speaker, predictably said the most and said it best:

Can't really explain how I feel because it just hasn't hit me, that these guys right next to me, the guys in the locker room, that we're not going to be together in the same way again. Who knows where we're going to be in a couple of months? Just this team was so special, something I'm never going to forget for all my life. We accomplished a lot just by loving each other and being really committed and loving playing with one another.

So I'm just really going to cherish everything that we had this year and it's going to be something I'll never forget.

...

I think for the first time in my life, I was a part of a group of guys that were really willing to bleed for one another. Guys that were really willing to just do whatever it took to go outside of themselves, to commit to the greater goal.

Looking at the year, going into it, we didn't know what was going to happen with the suspension and the injuries and all that stuff. But we stuck together through it, had a lot of great memories. One thing I can take from this team is just when you can truly love a group of guys or people like this, you bring out the best out of them and you bring out the best out of your self.

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Words are easy for legacies, because they echo and get written down. Actions, even in a world that is increasingly Vined and Instagrammed and Snapchatted, last mostly in minds and in words.

When Florida was out of it — down 10, with no chance of a three-fueled comeback, in the final minutes — Patric Young still laid out for a loose ball. When Florida was well and truly felled, Young hugged every UConn player before departing for the locker room, then high-fived UConn fans on his way in.

This game is not changing anything, regardless of how I feel, of my relationship with them. They're great guys. I love them, love to be around them. — Will Yeguete

When a friend of mine saw Will Yeguete in a hotel after the game, all she wanted to do was hug him — not as a fan stealing a moment, but as a friend giving a little love in return for all the love he's given all of us.

When Casey Prather, quiet and humbled and as aware of his identity as much as anyone on the team, needed to be great, on a day after a month of never quite being it, he was, fighting to keep his brothers alive.

When Scottie Wilbekin needed to be great, and wasn't, turning in the worst performance of his spectacular senior season and possibly the worst performance of his Florida career, he owned his part ... while also covering for Hill, one of his little brothers. "A couple of us were having bad shooting nights," he said. "We were just being too loose with (the ball)," he said. "All credit goes to them and their guards and the way they were denying and putting pressure on us," he said.

Us, we, them. For this team, it was hard to think, speak, or act like anything else.

This team has changed not only what I think of Florida basketball, and what I thought of every player on it, but what I think of the concept of a team as a whole. I have never in my life seen a team as wholly and unshakably committed to each other, and it never wavered in its love for more than fleeting moments.

After fouls, it huddled and reassured itself. After big plays, it celebrated as a group. After wins, it reveled in the triumph together. After losses, it shared the blame. It did what it did together, happily fitting all its jagged individual pieces into place, and solving a puzzle that allowed it to find a high rung among some of the greatest teams in college basketball history.

I didn't think this team was possible. But it proved me wrong, time after time.

Watch sports for long enough and you'll fall in and out of love with them routinely, beaming when your teams win and souring when players you don't like prevail. Cover sports for any stretch of time, even only as long as the six or seven years I have, and it's hard not to be jaded. The whole of sports played by humans is a cup runneth over for anyone who wants to get drunk on victory or excellence or defeat or schadenfruede; the scribes who work their fingers to the bone to describe that world get paid for temperance. Even those of us who haven't seen much, thanks to the rapid proliferation of everything, have seen so much.

It is fine, I think, to forgo temperance for things like these Florida Gators: This was and is the best team I have ever had the privilege of watching, and will be the impossible standard for every team I will watch for the rest of my life. Many will try to do what these Gators did, to be what they were. Most, and maybe all, will fail.

And so, for me, these Gators will have a life after death, one that will last forever.

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