Senior day sendoff

Florida's senior class started its legacy four years ago as backups, and on Saturday afternoon in the O'Connell Center, their historical regular season came to an end with one step. Walking off the floor of the arena one last time after finishing a perfect SEC season, the four seniors stopped at the base line on their way to the locker room, taking their last step off the playing surface together.

Their production this season came as a unit, and it ended that way, too.

It concluded with a 30-minute celebration of net-cutting, hugs and even some tears from family and friends watching from the corner of the court. Billy Donovan handed the scissors to Patric Young to get the snipping started, but Scottie Wilbekin stepped in, claiming that the seniors would be the final four players to get their piece of the net.

So the four watched. Will Yeguete grabbed a sign from the crowd that said "18 and 0 and more to go," carrying it around with him. His fellow seniors walked around the court hugging coaches and their families.

After the nets were cut and the seniors were honored one final time, the group of four got down on its knees and kissed the Gator head at midcourt.

They made their final walk from midcourt to the southwest corner of the court, heading for a celebration in the locker room. But they weren't in a hurry.

All four seniors walked as slow as possible off the court with their eyes locked in different areas of the O'Connell Center, soaking in their final moments in the arena with a crowd in the stands.

And when they got to the baseline, exiting the playing surface for the final time, they made it last a few extra seconds before all four players took the last step off the court together. They looked at each other -- full grins on all four faces -- not wanting the moment to end. They all stepped forward for the final time, ending the greatest regular season in Florida basketball history.

The 84-65 win over Kentucky meant the Gators completed an 18-0 conference season, the first time a major conference team completed an undefeated conference schedule of at least 18 games since Indiana did it in 1976.

"For me as a coach, it's the greatest regular season I've ever been a part of," Donovan said, grinning ear-to-ear. "Their consistency and way that these guys have performed to win 18 games in this league -- that's never happened before. These guys have done a remarkable job.

"Our fans -- since I've been here in 18 years -- that was one of the best sendoffs I've seen for a senior class. Our fans deserve a lot of credit for that."

The pregame ceremony provided the emotion. Just 15 minutes before tipoff, the four Florida seniors were honored in alphabetical order, given a framed orange Florida jersey and honored with a highlight video of their careers. A final video ended the ceremony, running through multiple members of the Rowdy Reptiles student section, thanking the seniors for their time in Gainesville.

"I thought all of us were going to cry," Casey Prather said with a laugh. "I'm surprised none of us did. I knew that if one of us starting crying, everybody would start crying."

But that's when the tough part started.

The four seniors hustled back to the locker room to prepare for their final home game against conference rival Kentucky. Donovan spent time with them every day since Florida returned from its Tuesday win at South Carolina, getting the four ready for the emotions that would come with it. It was the 18th senior day for Donovan, and while there's no exact formula for success, he wanted his seniors to know what they would be feeling.

He also wanted them to be proud.

"You've got people saying they can't believe it's your last game and they're going to miss you, and before you know it, you're in this depressed state and forget to play," Donovan said. "I told those guys that we can't do that."

And they didn't.

Florida sprinted out to a 20-9 lead in the first nine minutes, taking control of the game and extending the lead throughout the remainder of the half.

Kentucky fought back into the game, cutting the 21-point halftime lead to just six points with 12:24 remaining in the game, but the seniors regrouped. Donovan praised their conversation in the huddle, focusing on the next possession and vowing to get back on the right foot.

Surprising to no one, they did. It's the way they've been all season -- dominating. And even when the opposing team fights back, the difference in this year's team is Florida can withstand a run. They don't back down.

"I sensed (the team was) a little drained," Donovan said about his team coming out after halftime. "I knew Kentucky was going to make a run because they're too talented not to. After the 16-mintue timeout, we just didn't play great basketball. We got spread out on defense and played into their hands, opening up driving gaps for them.

"We just kept our composure, knew it was going to be a 40-minute game and just kept coming."

When the Florida lead was 53-47, the senior class provided the next 24 points over a 10-minute span. The momentum switched and gave Florida the senior sendoff it wanted. Donovan was able to substitute all four seniors out of the game with 36 seconds left for one last ovation.

"It means everything," Wilbekin said about Saturday's performance. "I couldn't have asked for it to end any other way. It's picture perfect. When I was sleeping last night, this is how I imagined it to be. I'm just so happy. It's sad that it's my last game here, but I'm just so happy right now."

The focus will soon shift to the SEC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament after that, but it won't happen immediately. Saturday was about celebration.


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