Emotional senior night ends in euphoria

The Gators were supposed to be warming up. Most of them were. And while Florida head coach Billy Donovan was meeting with his staff in the locker room, senior guard Mike Rosario burst through the doors. He had a phone call to make. The normal routine doesn't usually happen on senior night, and it was no different on Wednesday as the Gators clinched the Southeastern Conference title.

Mike Rosario went through warm ups, made a few layups and jogged through lines on both sides of the floor. But his mind was elsewhere. He wanted to see his family, especially his mom. Billy Donovan had to assure Rosario that everything would be fine and that his family would find their way. Yet with minutes until the start of senior night festivities, a large group of Rosario's family walked across the court and into the locker room.

Senior night is never normal. Wednesday night proved it.

It's the finality of the event that can cause players to start slow or seem overwhelmed.

"This is it," Donovan said at his postgame press conference after Florida secured a 66-40 win. "Erik Murphy will never ever, ever— or Kenny Boynton or Mike Rosario — ever take another shot in this building again. It's over. That's how fast it goes by."

And that's why the emotions came. They were there pregame, as all three players walked arm-in-arm with their mothers to midcourt, with a group of family members walking behind. It wasn't hard to figure out why there was a slow trot to the Gator head at the middle of the court. They didn't want it to end.

Close to a sellout crowd was on its feet cheering for their careers in Gainesville. A career highlight video played on the O'Connell Center screens, showcasing what each player meant to the program. The three players stood in the southwest corner of the tunnel, watching as four years of memories were summed up in a one-minute video.

That's when the truth hit the three players. Wednesday night was it. They'd get their framed jerseys at midcourt from Donovan, thank the fans and take some pictures. But after 40 more minutes of basketball — it was over.

"Sometimes these guys get that realization when they're sitting there, like ‘this is it.' In those moments, it's hard to emotionally get your team where they need to be," Donovan said.

Even with a Southeastern Conference title on the line, emotions can be tough to handle. It's why the Gators started the game slow and looked disheveled on offense.

However, just like it did on Saturday, the Florida offense hit its groove over the final 12 minutes, ending the game with a 29-11 run as the Gators earned the program's sixth SEC title and fourth outright.

"The last 10-12 minutes, we really played like I hope we can play," Donovan said.

Boynton overcame a slow start, ending the game with a team-high 15 points. Rosario had five points, getting them all in the first 4:25 of the game. Murphy had 10 points and six rebounds.

None of the three had the senior nights they wanted, but what happened after the game made it all worth it.

Donovan called a timeout with 2:18 left to bring Boynton, Murphy and Rosario out of the game at the same time. Emotions differed on the bench. The ever-stoic Boynton kept calm and barely showed any emotion — just as in the previous four years.

Murphy lost it. Knowing he'd played his last minute on the floor of the O'Connell Center produced some tears as he went down the bench and hugged everyone.

"I tried to hold it together," Murphy said. "I knew I was going to cry at some point. As soon as (the seniors) came out of the game and sat down on the bench, that's when it hit me. It's a special feeling."

The Gators gathered in a circle right under the basket in front of the Florida bench. Arm-in-arm, the team listened to a few of the veterans speak to the team about enjoying the night but focusing on what's left of the schedule. Then came the ladder. The Florida players, starting with the freshmen, climbed it and cut down their piece of the net.

The last one? Boynton, who can still make a run at the school's career points record, climbed to the top of the net to a thunderous ovation from the crowd. He chopped off the last strand holding the net to the rim, grabbed his piece, and threw the remaining net around his neck as a necklace.

"The ovation made me feel great for them to do that for me," Boynton said, calling it a top-three moment in his career. "It meant a lot. I really had a great time tonight."

So with nets around their necks, Boynton and Rosario led Murphy and the rest of the team to the Florida locker room. But this senior night was different. An injury-laden season turned into one with a championship.

The conference championship talk started the first day of practice, as the Florida players sat on the court talking with the coaches about their goals for the season. They knew what they wanted, and they did it on Wednesday — warts and all.

"It's an incredible, terrific accomplishment for our team, considering the things we've had to overcome," Donovan said. "I was happy they could celebrate that and share in it together on our home court.

"A lot of times on senior night, it doesn't quite get a chance to end like that for you. You go undefeated at home your senior year, clinch a conference championship outright and walk off the court with an opportunity to cut down the nets."

But senior night is never normal.


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