----Lon Kruger's comments the day after Florida's 70-65 loss to Duke in the 1994 NCAA Final Four at Charlotte.
Even though the Gators have made the NCAA Tournament a school-record five straight times, and last season were ranked No. 1 in the country during the regular season, there has been only one other Final Four appearance in the past 10 years. Gator fans have certainly learned how tough it is to get to the Final Four.
What made the 1993-94 season so amazing was that so little was expected of the Gators when the season began. Unlike the past five years, when UF has been ranked no worse than No. 11 in the preseason polls, that 1993-94 team was completely off the national basketball radar. Heck, it wasn't even considered an SEC East Division title contender. In the preseason poll at SEC Media Days in November 1993, the Gators were picked to finish fourth in the SEC East. And with good reason.
A year earlier, after compiling a 16-8 record heading into the final two weeks of the season, the Gators were on the verge of earning the school's first NCAA Tournament bid since 1989. But losses to Mississippi State and Kentucky to close the regular season and a devastating first-round SEC Tournament loss to Mississippi, whom the Gators had beaten 94-47 three weeks earlier, meant a second straight trip to the NIT, where the Gators lost to Minnesota in the opening round.
So the Gators entered the 1993-94 season with a four-game losing streak and minus their leading scorer Stacey Poole. There were two fulltime starters returning, senior Craig Brown and junior Andrew DeClercq, plus a part-time starter in junior point guard Dan Cross. Brown, the leading returning scorer with a 10.9 average the year before and Martti Kuisma were the only seniors on the squad. The other juniors, in addition to Cross and DeClercq were reserve center Svein Dyrkolbotn and transfer Tony Mickens. There were four sophomores, the trio of Dametri Hill, Jason Anderson and Brian Thompson who played very little as freshmen plus former walk on Clayton Bates, redshirt freshman forward John Griffiths, freshman recruit Greg Williams and another pair of freshman walk ons, Joel Reinhart and Dan Williams. For a short while there was also Ben Davis.
Davis, who transferred to UF from Kansas in December 1992, was expected to provide much needed rebounding strength. He averaged 6.6 points and 4.5 rebounds in 18 minutes a game as a freshman at Kansas after earning Parade All-America honors in high school. But in late August 1993, Davis was ruled ineligible after testing positive for marijuana on at least two occasions. Suddenly, the Gators' hopes of improving from being one of the SEC's worst rebounding teams suffered a major blow.
"The biggest thing going into the season was when they told us Ben Davis was leaving," Griffiths said. "Everybody told us we wouldn't be any good after that, but we just didn't believe it."
"Obviously when you lose a big guy who is physical and strong and talented, it is going to have an impact," Kruger said at the time. "A lot of it depends on how the other players respond, but we expect them to respond to the challenge collectively and pick up that slack."
While the loss of Davis was expected to negatively impact the squad on the court, it was a trip to Australia in the spring which may have been the biggest off-season factor that led to the dream season. The 18-day trip in May not only included eight games which gave the younger players a chance to get extensive playing time with the veteran returnees, but it also helped develop the camaraderie which became a key to the team's extraordinary success.
"The tour of Australia helped us come together," Brown said. "The guys started hanging out together. Brian (Thompson) and Martti (Kuisma) actually went bungee jumping. We did a lot of talking and we started hanging out a lot more together. We became brothers."
Despite all the positives that came out of the Australian experience, a major concern developed during the trip. Cross, who was expected to take over as the starting point guard after ascending to the position during the second half of the 1992-93 season, didn't show the leadership that had been expected of him.
"We went into the year with questions about our point guard play," former UF assistant coach Robert McCullum explained. "Dan's sophomore year wasn't so good and he didn't play well in Australia. Good teams have good guard play and we felt good about Craig Brown going into the season, but we weren't sure about Dan."
The Gators had a heralded high school recruit in Greg Williams out of Fairfax, Va., and Kruger went into the fall with the realization that Cross and Williams might have to share playing time at the point. But it didn't take long for Cross to change everybody's opinion about his role with the team.
From the first day of practice in October, Cross proved to be one of the team's hardest workers, and immediately grabbed a leadership role he never relinquished. In the second game of the season, a road contest against Texas before 12,170 fans in Austin, Cross led the Gators to a 76-68 upset win, scoring 15 points, pulling down 13 rebounds, dishing out four assists and hitting eight straight free throws in the final minute of the game to seal the victory.
"That Texas trip really stands out," McCullum said when asked to pick a key moment early in the Final Four season. "Texas teams were always very athletic. Winning there and the way Dan battled their fullcourt pressure for forty minutes was something special."
The Gators raced out to a surprising 5-0 start before losing to Florida State in Orlando then beat Central Florida before heading to Philadelphia for a game with Villanova before a short Christmas break and a memorable trip to Hawaii to play in the Rainbow Classic.
"Going to Villanova after that disappointing loss to FSU was our last game before Christmas," McCullum explained, "and as a coach the two games you worry about the most are the game before Christmas break and the first game after the break. The game before you don't know if the players are thinking about going home and the game after you don't know what's on their minds after being home."
In a homecoming game for Brown, who is from Steelton, Pa., 90 miles from Philadelphia, the senior guard scored 20 points to lead the Gators to an 85-77 win in front of a crowd of 6,500 fans that included more than 50 of Brown's friends and relatives. Then in Hawaii, the entire country learned about a soon-to-be folk hero in Gator basketball history--- Dametri Hill.
As a freshman the year before, Hill was a major disappointment. He came to UF after an outstanding career at St. Petersburg Dixie Hollins, but the 6-7 forward arrived grossly overweight and out of shape. At 350 pounds, Hill was unable to keep up in preseason conditioning drills, barely breaking 10 minutes in the mile run and literally collapsing after practice-ending wind sprints. He played a total of 60 minutes as a freshman, scored only 17 points and was seriously considering transferring to another school.
"He was probably worse than any of the football players that come in," team trainer Chris Koenig said of Hill's condition. "We gave him a hydrostatic weighting and bone density test that showed thirty percent of his weight was body fat."
Hill realized he had to change his eating and training habits, and by the time the season rolled around he had trimmed 60 pounds off his body. He certainly wasn't svelte, but at 290 pounds, Hill became far more mobile, was able to play longer stretches without a break and became a scoring terror inside. During the Gators' 7-1 start, Hill averaged 12 points per game and provided a tremendous inside complement to the outside scoring of Brown and Cross. During the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii, Hill showed just how good he could be.
Playing against Oklahoma State, Hill, who by now had been christened "Da Meat Hook" for his soft hook shot in the lane, destroyed All-America center Bryant "Big Country" Reeves, outscoring him 23-4 in the Gators' 74-69 win. A day later, the Gators played Louisville's nationally-ranked squad tough before losing 83-68 as Hill outscored soon-to-be NBA player Clifford Rozier, 28-7. Hill was no longer an unknown in college basketball circles.
Despite entering the SEC schedule with a 9-2 record, the Gators still had not gained any respect from the coaches and media who voted in the national polls. It wasn't until February, when the Gators pushed their record to 16-3 and ran out to an SEC-leading 6-1 record that they finally broke into the top 25 in the rankings. Yet long before the rest of the country took notice, the Gators knew they had something special going.
"The consistency of that group from day one to the end of the year was just tremendous. They kept getting better and they were very unselfish," said Kruger, who stayed at Florida for two more years before taking the head coaching job at Illinois. "Any time you start winning games on the road you gain so much confidence and we did that a few times early in the year."
While road wins over Texas, Villanova, Oklahoma State and Tennessee certainly increased the team's confidence in their ability to compete with the top teams, it was a Jan. 18 home game against Kentucky that may have finally convinced everyone that these guys could play with the big boys.
Both teams came into the game with 13-2 records, but Kentucky was averaging 95 points per game and was ranked in the top 10 while the Gators were still searching for any kind of national respect. Before an O'Connell Center record crowd of 12,221 and an ESPN national TV audience, the Gators proved they belonged among the nation's elite. In an intense battle that highlighted outstanding defense rather than two high-scoring offenses, the Gators prevailed 59-57 as Cross scored a career-high 20 points and DeClercq grabbed a career-high 20 rebounds in the victory.
"That was a big win against Kentucky at home," Brown remembered.
"When we beat Kentucky at home that really gave us all the confidence," Clayton Bates added.
"Beating Kentucky at home…we did such a great job defending them," chimed in McCullum.
The Gators battled Kentucky for the SEC East title the rest of the way, and headed into Rupp Arena tied at 11-3 with the Wildcats with two league games remaining. After building a huge first half lead during Kentucky's emotion-filled Senior Day contest, the Gators wilted in the second half, losing 80-77. The loss apparently ended UF's division title hopes, but three days later Kentucky suffered a stunning loss at South Carolina. Suddenly, the Gators were playing Tennessee for a chance to tie Kentucky for the SEC East title and a No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament.
In a fitting home finale, the Gators beat Tennessee 82-71 to complete UF's first unbeaten season in O'Connell Center history (13-0) and win a share of the division title. Five days later at the SEC Tournament in Memphis, the Gators stormed to the championship game with impressive wins over South Carolina and Alabama before losing to Kentucky 73-60. With a 25-7 record and a load of impressive wins on their resume, the Gators were given a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and sent off to first-round play against 14th-seeded James Madison in the Eastern Regional in Long Island, N.Y.
Seemingly affected by the pressures of the NCAA Tournament, the Gators played one of their worst games of the season, yet managed to pull out a 64-62 win. Down 60-59 with 48 seconds to play, Greg Williams hit a 3-pointer to put UF ahead. After JMU tied the game, Cross scored on a driving layup with seven seconds left and the Gators survived to play a second-round game against Penn.
"Remember this was the first (NCAA Tournament) game for all these guys," Kruger said after the escape. "We really played without a lot of composure early on."
After working so hard to earn respect in the first 32 games of the season, the poor showing against James Madison seemed to erase Florida's season-long accomplishments in the eyes of the so-called experts. CBS studio analyst Clark Kellogg predicted that No. 11 seeded Penn would beat the Gators while courtside announcer Billy Packer said the question wasn't whether Penn could beat Florida, but if Florida could beat Penn.
Proving that the game against James Madison was an aberration, the Gators returned to their season-long form and beat Penn, 70-58, shutting down the Quakers' vaunted offense, and in the process earning a trip to Miami for the Sweet 16.
"That was probably the only time in history a No. 3 seed was an underdog to a No. 11 seed," a sarcastic Kruger said after the game. "Those kinds of things really are not to concern ourselves with. All that matters is that after tomorrow there will be sixteen teams left in the country playing and the University of Florida will be one of them."
Fortunate to be the only team among the Sweet 16 that would be playing in its home state, the Gators headed to Miami Arena to battle with No. 2 seed Connecticut (29-4), Boston College, which had upset No. 1-ranked North Carolina in the second round and Indiana.
"I think people are starting to realize we have a lot of good basketball players. Maybe not a lot of guys who were super-highly heralded coming out of high school but at some point whether or not you're a good basketball player has to be determined by results," Kruger said of his 27-win team at the time. "It's like with Dan and Craig. You can measure them up against several of the high school All-Americans that came out when they did and I would imagine their results right now are better than eighty percent of them. So who's the better basketball player?"
As the season had progressed, Florida's penchant for doing whatever it took to pull out tightly-contested games in the closing minutes led to the motto, that has been, and will be forever associated with this team: Find A Way. At the Sweet 16 in Miami, they found a way twice, with some unexpected help from Connecticut's Donyell Marshall, to win another pair of close games.
While the East Regional was being dubbed the UConn Invitational after North Carolina's stunning loss in the second-round, there was never any doubt among the Gators that they were good enough to advance to the Final Four.
"Once we got into SEC play we were clicking on all cylinders," remembered Joel Reinhart, a walk on who played in only two games all year but was a keen observer of the team's development. "We went to Arkansas when they were ranked number one and we almost beat them. We should have beaten them. From then on we expected to win. We had short practices as the season went on, maybe thirty-five to forty five minutes. We didn't need longer practices because everyone was on the same page. Everything fired on time and we didn't have to repeat stuff. It was one of those surreal things. We knew we were going to keep winning."
The Gators and their multitude of fans among the 15,217 at the Miami Arena may have thought UF could win, but with 14:26 left in the game, UF trailed 44-34 and didn't seem to have the firepower to mount a comeback against the Huskies. But that staple of the entire season--- defense--- keyed an amazing turnaround as the Gators held UConn to three baskets the rest of the half and finally caught the Huskies with seven minutes left in the game. Florida grabbed a three-point lead, and could have extended it to five with 5:18 remaining, but Cross missed a pair of free throws. Yet those misses paled in comparison to Marshall's.
With 3.4 seconds left in the game and the score tied at 57, Marshall, a 76 percent free throw shooter, went to the line for a pair of shots. When he missed them both, the Gators went from a team that could find a way to a team of destiny. After outscoring the Huskies 13-3 in overtime, only a victory over Boston College in the regional final stood between the Gators and a trip to the Final Four.
As was the case so many times before in this wondrous season, the regional final was still up for grabs going into the last seven minutes of play. Then Brown and DeClercq stepped up. With UF trailing 56-53, Cross found Brown coming off a pick and the senior nailed the 3-pointer to tie the game. On the next possession Brown somehow managed to block the shot of B.C. center Bill Curley and then came down the court and hit another three-pointer to put UF ahead 59-56.
With 4:06 left in the game the Gators seemingly had the Eagles on the ropes, but when Cross came across the time line with the ball after another Boston College miss, Kruger signaled for a timeout, even though a TV timeout was due after the next stoppage of play.
"Even though there was a timeout coming in six seconds, I thought we looked a little tired, a little emotionally spent," Kruger said. "We had made a good run and we just wanted to make sure we got a good shot on that possession to maybe create a little bit of a margin.
"We had been running the same play with the idea of getting the ball inside to Dametri so we used that as a bit of a decoy and then Craig did a heckuva job of setting his man up and coming back against the grain, and Dan did a nice job of getting him the ball in the right place."
Brown delivered his third trey in three possessions and the Gators had a 62-56 lead with 3:50 left in the game. From there, DeClercq took over. With just under three minutes remaining and the Gators clinging to a 64-59 lead, Howard Eisley stole a pass and cruised in for what seemed to be an easy layup. Except DeClercq, conceding nothing, raced down the court and batted the ball off the backboard. Instead of leading by only three, the Gators extended their lead to six when Cross hit a free throw with 2:17 remaining.
After B.C. closed to 65-61 and regained possession of the ball, DeClercq came up big again at the defensive end, taking a charge on Curley, who tried a power move inside the lane. A few seconds later Brown hit a pair of free throws and the Gators had a safe six-point lead in the closing minute of play.
The 74-66 victory sent the Gator-dominated crowd in Miami into pandemonium. The exhilaration felt by players, coaches and fans at the time may have been unmatched in UF athletic history. The Florida Gators had made the Final Four. The tears flowed because a bunch of guys who had become a family were able to share feelings of utter joy among teammates and coaches they had come to respect and love.
"That team played to their expectation level more than any team I've ever been around," said R.C. Buford, who was in his first and only year as a UF assistant coach and is currently the general manager of the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. "Lon did a great job of defining roles and had players playing to their roles. They communicated at a higher level than any team I've been around. They were committed on and off the court to living up to each other."
In the NCAA semifinal against Duke, for one of the few times all season, the Gators were unable to pull off their late-game magic, even after they took a 63-62 lead on Brown's three-pointer with 2:53 left in the game. It was Duke that came up with the big plays down the stretch, a Jeff Capel 3-pointer to put the Blue Devils ahead with 2:31 remaining and a Cherokee Parks' rebound and put back with 13.5 seconds left to give Duke a 68-65 lead. The Gators fell 70-65, but left a lasting impression on the college basketball world about just how special, and talented, this team was.
With a 29-8 record, the 1993-94 Gators set an alltime UF record for wins, a mark that is now shared by the 1999-00 squad that had the identical record after dropping the national championship game to Michigan State. The 1993-94 team is still the only one in school history to post a perfect record at the O'Connell Center. And while the 1993-94 team is now one of two Gator basketball teams to make it to the Final Four, it will always be the first one to get there.
"Being able to set a goal and accomplish a dream was just unbelievable," Cross said recently. "We went into the season and people weren't expecting much from us. I felt I had to prove a lot of people wrong. Having accomplished something that hadn't been done before in school history is what I'll always remember. Five games into the season I thought we might have something special but I never expected it to be that special."