The 77-70 loss to South Carolina in the Elite 8 was certainly one they could have won. Maybe that makes it tougher, but there is something to be said about a bunch of guys who get together to outperform expectations and do it through extra work and playing hard every time out.
That was the 2016-2017 Florida Gators Men’s Basketball Team and it is sad to see that effort have to end.
“A lot of things I learned, just to never give up regardless of the circumstances,” Justin Leon said on stage after the final game of the season. “Things may not go your way, but you never know what you'll be capable of, you just keep going. I felt like that because I know a lot of people… didn't have us going this far at the beginning of the season, probably didn't even have us making the tournament. We just faced adversity and just got to be tough and keep moving forward, just like now. Who knows where I'm going to be after this, but all I can do is just keep my head high and hope for the best when I get done with the season.
And these guys have faced defeat with humility, every time it has happened, which is far less than most expected. After a hard fought game against a conference foe and a team that they had already beaten on the court, they could have been much different about it, but they weren’t/.
“They were just the better team honestly, that's all it was,” senior guard Kasey Hill said of the Gamecocks on this day.
Now, Hill and Leon will move on. For Hill Sunday’s loss is the culmination of a four year tumultuous personal career, but in terms of the team he was part of a Final Four squad as a freshman. One of the most athletic players that ever put on Florida basketball jersey, it wasn’t always pretty from hill, but it was always with effort.
For Leon, the junior college transfer, he spent the last two years pushing his teammates to go as hard as he does. It rubbed off a lot on a team that this year could never be faulted for effort. He says that people need to know that their coach is the one that pushes that mindset.
“I think that he's shown signs of a lot of toughness, that's one of the things Coach White preaches,” Leon said. “And I guess with him recruiting me, it shows that he likes tough players and he just wants the program to be known as a good hard-nosed program.”
As they go through life, both admitted that one play, one shot, will be the lasting memory that they take from their days in the program. Chris Chiozza hit a game winning three-pointer with time running out against Wisconsin on Friday to get them to this point. They won’t forget.
“I would probably say the shot that Chiozza made, honestly,” Hill said of his career lasting memory. “Everybody was happy for him that he made a shot and that we won the game.
“That shot, because I (haven’t ever) really been a part of something like that, especially on this big or this high of a stage,” Leon added. “And probably for myself, just making it this far, especially being a JuCo guy, you know, you can say I transferred and went to the Elite 8.
Before Mike White, Billy Donovan built a legacy at Florida that lasted nearly 20 years, but dropped off in his last season before White arrived missing the NCAA tournament after four trips to the Elite 8 and one of those to the final 4. The Gators were close to making the tournament in White’s first year, but just missed. Two years removed from the tournament, the Gators were picked by many to make the tournament this season, but nowhere along the line were they expected to go this far.
The two were proud to be a part of the return and expect things to continue in a positive direction.
“I'm just happy that we got in the tournament or got the university back into the tournament, and I'm happy that Coach White could be a part of that and everybody else can be a part of that,” Hill said.
“I'll be happy to say I was a part of… getting Florida back to Florida basketball back to what Florida basketball is known for,” Leon said.