ARLINGTON, Texas — This Gators team had all the pieces to win the program’s first national title since 2007. It had the depth, experience, chemistry and talent to make that goal a reality.
But UConn stood in the way of chasing that dream.
And thanks to its poorest offensive outing of the season, Florida was sent packing from AT&T Stadium one game sooner than it desired.
A promising season and a historic 30-game winning streak came to a screeching halt Saturday in the NCAA Tournament semifinals as the No. 1 seed Gators (36-3) fell 63-53 to the No. 7 seed Huskies, who will square off against eighth-seeded Kentucky in tonight’s national title game at 9:10.
After losing again to UConn (31-8), the last team to beat them before their historic streak, the Gators were in disbelief.
During postgame interviews in a quiet locker room, a red-eyed Casey Prather held back tears, battling to keep his composure and answer each question. Michael Frazier II, who was contained to just one three-pointer for the Gators’ only make from downtown all night, looked dejected as a hoard of reporters held recorders to his face. Other Florida players sat away from reporters, staring at the ground with towels hanging over their heads, thinking about what could have been.
“I really wanted our guys to get a fire in their eyes and just realize like, ‘This is going to be the rest of our lives,’” said senior center Patric Young, who finished with a team-high 19 points. “‘Let’s just go out there and leave it all out on the court. Whatever happens, let’s just go out there and fight and be the best that we can be.’
“But I just feel like we were a step too slow [Saturday]. I just didn’t see it in our guys’ eyes today. I was just trying so hard to get us connected from that standpoint, but it just wasn’t there.”
After relinquishing a 12-point lead in the first half, the Gators could not bounce back. They had a season-low 22 points at halftime and saw Shabazz Napier, DeAndre Daniels and the Huskies exploit their defense for a 10-point advantage about seven minutes into the second half.
“We knew they were going to come back and make a run,” Prather said. “They’re a good team. That’s what good teams do.”
Young took over down the stretch and flourished in the interior, helping UF cut its deficit to 43-40 with 8:03 left. The senior center scored 16 of Florida’s final 22 points.
But he could not do it all alone.
Excluding Young and Prather, who added 15 points, the Gators shot only 6 of 26 from the field against Connecticut. A squad that prides itself on being connected, Florida recorded only three assists against 11 turnovers.
Scottie Wilbekin, who entered the game averaging 16.8 points during UF’s first four games of the Big Dance, battled cramps Saturday and scored just four points on 2-of-9 shooting.
“On offense, we just couldn’t really get anything going,” the senior point guard said.
“They were being really aggressive and we couldn’t really get into our offense. We weren’t moving the ball as well.”
Despite a bitter and abrupt close to the year, the Gators have not lost perspective of how magical this season was for them.
After battling through injuries and suspensions during the first month of the year, Florida eventually gelled and ran through its Southeastern Conference slate undefeated, clinching both the regular-season and tournament titles. Its senior class of Prather, Wilbekin, Young and Will Yeguete that exited the Elite Eight in three previous seasons finally got over the hump, reaching the program’s first Final Four since it won back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007 during the glory days of Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer.
“I think for the first time in my life, I was a part of a group of guys that were really willing to bleed for one another,” Young said, “Guys that were really willing to just do whatever it took to go outside of themselves, to commit to the greater goal.”
Once the pain of losing against the Huskies subsides, the Gators will relish a 2013-14 campaign filled with records and accomplishments — one that Donovan can call one of the most successful of his 18-year tenure at UF.
“Their body of work on the court people will evaluate or judge themselves,” Donovan said. “But for me personally, where they were as individuals and where they were as a team to where they came from in terms of becoming a team, I mean, it was one of the most special experiences I’ve had being around a group of guys away from the court maybe since I’ve been in coaching.”
Follow Landon Watnick on Twitter @LandonWatnick
Florida center Patric Young (4) drives to the basket past Connecticut forward DeAndre Daniels (2) during the first half of the NCAA Final Four tournament game on Saturday in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.