Florida Flashback Series: The 2014 Final Four Run

Updated: Apr 10

A near perfect basketball season gave the Florida Gators one of the best win stretches of the last 10 years.


BY: KASSIDY HILL

GATORBAIT COLUMNIST

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In the history of Florida Gators basketball, no stretch of time will ever be as magical as the back-to-back National Championships in 2006 and 2007. But the Final Four run in 2014 was still certainly momentous and was arguably one of the brightest spots in Gator athletics this past decade. There were so many individual plays and runs that amounted to the perfect SEC season and the 36-3 overall record.

Early season losses against Wisconsin and UCONN rose questions about whether the team—full of veterans—had enough consistency to go far (to their credit, both were true road games against Top 15 teams). After returning Scottie Wilbekin from a five game suspension though, the offense began to mesh and run with a purpose towards wins over ranked Kansas and Memphis. Once the SEC play kicked off January 8, the Gators were on a mission and no one, no All-American and no Cinderella was going to get in their way.



IT’S A BIRD, IT’S A PLANE, IT’S PATRIC YOUNG

When the Gators rolled into Knoxville, they were looking for their 16th straight win in the season. They’d handily defeated the Vols 67-41 earlier in the season but UT strengthened as the year went on, even going as far as the Sweet-16 in the NCAA Tournament. In the back half of the home and home during the regular season, Tennessee worked their way back in the second half to pull within one with less than five minutes remaining. The Gators found two shots beyond the arc but the Volunteers wouldn’t go away. With 1:40 remaining and on their end of the floor, Patric Young took over a possession that changed the game and possibly even the season.


Scottie Wilbekin took a jumper that was blocked and Young grabbed it off the bounce. The big man turned around for a jumper of his own but it bounced off the rim. He had already stepped back to transition to defense when he noticed the miss. He shot back from the top of the key and his body parallel to the ground, Young dove his 6’9” frame through two Vol defenders and grabbed the ball. He flipped it back to Kasey Hill just before his body went out of bounds. That shot didn’t fall either but it gave everyone a chance to reset, leading to Wilbekin earning a trip to the free-throw line to ice the game.

The play encapsulated what this team was becoming and set the tone for the remainder of the season. A roster of guys that were talented individually but unstoppable together, who were willing to give every last ounce of effort in order to advance as a team. It was such a teaching moment that Kentucky Wildcats coach John Calipari showed the clip to his team.


"What are you willing to do to win a game?" Calipari said he asked UK players at the time, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.


"I know what he's willing to do. I saw it.”


Said Young, “That play is a little microcosm of what it means to really want to win and doing whatever it takes. It's not always about scouting reports or not always about defensive sets or rotations. A lot of this game is about 50/50 balls and effort.”


Florida of course did get that 16th win and so many more. And while watching Patric Young sacrifice himself to make the play necessary, we knew special things were coming for the Florida Gators that season.



MICHAEL FRAZIER FOR THREE

It was a late season game—February 19—and the No. 2 Gators were in a grudge match against the Auburn Tigers who were 4-8 in the SEC to that point. The Tigers led by eight at half and had an answering punch from any Gators swing. As the second half rode on, tension sifted its way through the O-Dome. The Rowdy Reptiles began the yell of desperation and fans began to stand, realizing that this game wasn’t going to be won easily.


There was 0:41 remaining; there had been two timeouts, blocked shots and no baskets perpetrating the 1:25 before. Patric Young got a defensive rebound and the Gators came charging down the floor with little time and down by two. Casey Prather shot a pass to Michael Frazier—the young sniper on a veteran team. The O-Dome was vibrating with anxiety, anticipation and noise, just unbelievable noise. As everyone barreled towards the basket, Frazier stopped quick just short of the arc. He rose and with his perfect form, sank the 3-pointer for a 1-point lead.


The eruption seemed to shake the court right into the air. The early season baseball game going on next door was interrupted as spectators recall hearing the din of the roar. It continued through Auburn’s timeout and gained a slight strain of worry as the Tigers tied the game again with a free throw. Then it grew again as Chris Denson missed his second shot from the charity stripe and as Young along with Scottie Wilbekin hit all five free throws they received in the waning seconds to secure the 71-66 win.


This reporter has spent a lot of time covering games in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center the past decade. No singular moment has ever compared to the cacophony that exploded when Michael Frazier hit that shot.

REVENGE IS BEST SERVED WITH A CHOMP

At the end of the 2013 season, Marshall Henderson was lighting up the SEC and college basketball. He made enemies like it was an art form and spared no feelings along the way. When Ole Miss beat Florida in the 2013 SEC Tournament final, Henderson gator chomped towards the Florida bench, the fans, anyone who would look, a favorite taunt by Gator opponents. But the Florida players didn’t forget about Henderson. When No. 2 Florida pulled off a nail biter 75-71 win in Oxford on February 22, Scottie Wilbekin skipped across the court with his tongue out and gator chomping towards Henderson and the Ole Miss fans. It was revenge, relief and a realization that this team was clicking on all cylinders.

THE HAT TRICK

Kentucky is the perpetual foe for Florida basketball, the Goliath that any other team must slay for hopes of a successful season. Florida might be too strong to be considered a plucky David but the giant Cats still consistently stands in UF’s way. In 2014, Billy Donovan, the four seniors and the sharp shooting young guys ran roughshod over UK. Just a few days after Calipari showed his players the clip of Young’s Superman dive, the No. 3 ranked Gators rolled into Rupp Arena to face the No. 14 Cats…and yet Florida was a 3.5 point underdog.


Rupp worked its voodoo and Kentucky led for much of the game. But the veteran Gators chipped away at the freshman laden Cats and with 8:14 to play, Wilbekin hit two free throws that took the lead. Casey Prather followed with a jumper and Florida never relinquished the lead, leaving with a 69-59 win.


Three weeks later, Florida welcomed Kentucky to the Stephen C. O’Connell Center for the regular season finale. The Gators had not lost a game since the UCONN defeat and were looking to finish out the season with a perfect SEC record. This time the Cats were the underdog (8.5). Florida never trailed and led by double digits for the majority of the game, cruising to a 19-point win. The scoreboard was secondary to the day’s festivities though.



The forward focused Billy Donovan was all smiles, relishing in a celebratory moment while cutting down the net, before slinking to the back of the group to watch his players with an even bigger smile. Young and Will Yeguete held up a fan made sign that read “18-0 and more to go” while Prather and Wilbekin took victory laps. The four seniors, the group that had elected to return together in hopes of doing something special, then congregated at the center of the court. The bulking basketball players lowered themselves the hardwood and collectively kissed the Gator head logo. Then, in a moment encapsulating what had carried them all season, the four linked their arms and stepped off the O-Dome floor one last time, together.


The third time was almost the charm for the Wildcats. The SEC Tournament saw Kentucky begin to gel in the way all Calipari teams seem to do at the perfect time.

And in the tourney championship, the two unquestioned top teams in the league faced off yet again. UK never led but kept it close. Hanging on to a 1-point lead with a minute and a half to go, the Gators defense stayed at the basket and kept any sort of Cats run at bay. By this point, Florida was guaranteed a high seeding in the NCAA Tournament and could have feasibly held on to a No. 1 seed even with a loss to the top ranked Cats. This was about pride and proving something to the rest of the SEC and the rest of the country. When the clock hit 0:00, the expressions on the faces of the seniors, the embrace between best friends Young and Yeguete in total jubilation, it was clear this win was just as important as all the others. They had swept Kentucky and remained perfect in every SEC game. No matter what would come in the NCAA Tournament, no one would ever be able to take from them what they had just done.

THE FINAL FOUR


For three years, the Gators had made it to the Elite Eight only to get beaten in one fashion or another. But in 2014, they were the No. 1 overall seed and had Casey Prather on the cover of Sports Illustrated to prove the hype. UF played worthy of the seeding with easy work of their first three opponents, defeating all by double digits.

The day that Florida beat Dayton to advance to their first Final Four since 2007, the Gators returned home to a pep rally already fit for champions. Fans and students lined the gates at the Gainesville Regional Airport and stuck their hands through the chain link fence for just a touch of their hoops hero’s. The team joined the celebrations in progress at mid-town, allowing themselves one short hour to commemorate their accomplishment.


One could argue that to that point they hadn’t won anything. That there was no reason to celebrate just yet and that there was still much more for which to play. But this team, the majority of this roster, they had returned needing to rid themselves of the sour taste that was left after three straight Elite 8 losses. On that night, the monkey was off their back and no matter what happened the following week, they could point to the Final Four hardwood that would eventually go up on the practice room wall and remember the season they went farther than most teams can imagine. It’s why the four seniors high-fived fans and took pictures and sang the fight song. It’s why they went to the back patio at 101 Cantina (R.I.P.) and popped champagne bottles, spraying it over the packed crowd and they laughed and they cheered. It’s why one of them flopped down in his car in exhaustion, looked at me and through the biggest smile asked, “can you believe we did it?! The Final Four!”


On a personal note, being a reporter means staying unbiased and that’s something I feel I’ve done throughout my career. But while I can remain objective about the game and even the players within it, it’s impossible to cover a team and not get to know the people that make up the roster. You’re there for life defining experiences and ask them to open up to you. Sometimes, you even become good friends. That day was one of the few I wasn’t covering the game. Instead I got to join those I’d come to consider friends and watching them celebrate that win remains one of my favorite memories of the past decade. We know the story of what came next. The Gators headed to Arlington for the final round of March Madness. The four teams left in the dance were: Florida, the only two teams to beat Florida that season (Wisconsin and UCONN) and the team Florida had beaten three times that season (Kentucky). The Huskies beat the Gators 63-53 in route to the finale where they were crowned National Champions over Kentucky. Florida returned home to Gainesville early.


When they landed at the airport, there weren’t as many fans as there had been the week before, but they were still there. The shouts were less joyous and more comforting, but they still rang out. And as the pain of coming so close only to fall short has lessened over the years, we look back at that 2013-2014 season and smile. It was the greatest stretch of UF basketball during the 2010 decade and will remain one of the finer seasons in Florida Gators history.

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