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Thursday March 7, 2013SEC Champions: Gators Run Away From Vanderbilt to Clinch Outright League Crown

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- With 12 minutes to go, the Florida Gators were struggling to score Wednesday night almost as badly as visiting Vanderbilt. The UF lead was eight, down from 14 in the first half, and there was a weird sort of vibe inside the O'Connell Center.

"But I was never worried," junior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. "I thought things could possibly get ugly out there, but I never doubted it wasn't going to happen. Not tonight."

He shook his head.

"Not this night."

Not on Kenny Boynton, Erik Murphy and Mike Rosario's "senior night." Not with an outright Southeastern Conference crown there for the taking. Not with an adoring spring-break crowd waiting to send their elder trio and this 2012-13 team off into the wild March Madness yonder with a champion's momentum.

Indeed, this night became their night. 

"We'd missed a lot of shots," Boynton said. "Then we started making some."

A five-minute blitz was all UF needed to turn a game that was a little too tight into yet another conference crushing, as the 11th-ranked Gators rolled the Commodores 66-40 to claim the sixth SEC title in program history all to themselves and set off a home-court net-cutting ceremony in front of 10,504 of the rowdiest of reptiles.

"A lot of times on senior night, it doesn't quite end like that," Coach Billy Donovan said.

This was a happy ending, although this tale is far from done; at least the Gators (24-5, 14-3), who finished a perfect 15-0 at home, hope that's the case.

UF has Saturday's regular-season finale at Kentucky, where the Gators have not won since 2007, then the No. 1 seed in SEC Tournament at Nashville, Tenn., next week, and a high seed in the NCAA Tournament the week after that. 

"We still have some work to do," Murphy said. "This is such a great feeling, I just want to keep going."

Boynton scored all but two of his 15 points in the second half, going 3-for-5 from the arc after the break. Murphy added 10 points and six rebounds, while center Patric Young pitched in 14 points on 6-for-7 shooting (mostly on jump hooks) and four rebounds.

Florida shot 56.5 percent in the second half and had one of its signature defensive games in limiting the Commodores to 14 first-half points, 26.9 percent from the floor and guarded the 3-point line at 16.7 percent (4-for-24) against a team that came in making 35.7 from distance.

Make that 14 conference wins, 14 double-digit victories.

"We weren't doing much on offense," Boynton said. "But we were playing good defense."

Eventually, Florida got the game's tempo to its liking and was able to put away Vandy (13-16, 7-10) in a much easier fashion than the first 28 minutes might have suggested.

The UF lead was just 37-29 when the Gators came out of the under-12 media timeout in full-court pressure, got a stop and freshman Mike Frazier bombed a 3-pointer to push the margin back to double-digits. His long ball triggered a 19-3 run (including 13 straight). Wilbekin's wide-open trey in transition put Florida up 56-32 with under seven minutes to play. The Gators cruised home from there.

"They're the best team in the league and we certainly congratulate them on their championship," Vandy coach Kevin Stallings said. "They're very deserving."

With just over two minutes to go, Donovan called a timeout and pulled his seniors, who one by one made their way down the bench and hugged their coaches, teammates, managers, trainers, etc.

"I want to hug 'em all again right now," an emotional Murphy said through a few tears afterward. "I love this team, I love this program and it's just such a special feeling going out like this."

Rosario was a little misty too.

"It feels great to be a champion," he said.

After the final seconds ticked away -- amid chants of "SEC! SEC! SEC!" echoing through the dome -- out came the ladders and scissors, and up the rungs went with the Gators, one by one.

Donovan went last.

"The older I get, it's like with your kids; you get more enjoyment out of seeing them happy than you do for yourself," he said. "I hope some day there's a valuable lesson learned when they leave here, with what can be accomplished in life when a group of guys come together, put a common goal out there and strive to reach it together -- the amount of sacrifice that goes into it all the way around."

There's nothing like the gratification that comes from that hard work.

"Coach always says to embrace the grind," Murphy said. "When you do that and get the results, there is no better feeling of satisfaction."

In the locker room afterward, Donovan called his three seniors to address the team and speak to what the night meant. The request was a ruse.

When Boynton, Murphy and Rosario got to the front of the room, assistant coach Matt McCall and trainer David "Duke" Werner snuck up from behind and doused the trio with a bucket of water.

Then came the ritual that's followed each SEC win this season.

Werner handed Donovan a pill box and one ceremonial "diamond" was added to the collection. This one made 14. As in SEC victories.

"Build your own ring," has been the coach's mantra all season.

One piece of jewelry is done.

From here, there will be more diamonds out there for the taking.

"We're on the right track," Young said. "We've accomplished one goal, now we go back to work. On to Kentucky."

And beyond. 

 

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