GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Talk about ending a year in style.
The very last athletic event of the University of Florida’s 2012-13 sports calendar proved to be one of the biggest and best -- a championship instant, no less -- and thus took its appropriate place on my list of the top 10 memorable moments for UF’s sports teams.
You may disagree with the order and probably will disagree with several of the entries -- that’s what we’re here for -- but the chances are excellent you were either watching at the time or beaming with pride when learning of these accomplishments during a year when UF won or shared eight Southeastern Conference titles and two national championships.
Not surprisingly, the latter rate the top spots.
For gymnastics ... finally
After so many close calls -- including the .075 heartbreak of 2012 -- it wasn’t just that the UF gymnastics team captured the first NCAA title in school history that warrants them a spot at No. 1.
It was how they did it.
After watching both Kytra Hunter and Ashanee Dickerson spill from the balance beam on UF’s very first rotation, the Gators easily could have cashed it in.
Instead, Coach Rhonda Faehn reminded her troops of what still could be done (rather than bemoaning the damage already done) and freshman Bridget Sloan led her team from there.
Floor? Nailed it.
The Gators nudged past Oklahoma and Alabama in that final rotation to claim the longtime elusive crown.
Men’s track makes it two straight in dramatic fashion
Sometimes, champions have to be opportunists.
Ask UF’s 4x400 relay team.
The Gators trailed SEC rival Texas A&M by nine points heading into the final event of the NCAA meet June 8. The only way UF could defend its national title was by running a perfect race combined with some sort of disaster or controversy to the A&M relay team (the top-ranked 4x400 unit in the nation by the way).
The Aggies dropped the baton on the first exchange, while the third-seeded Florida team of Najee Glass, Hugh Graham, Jr., Dedric Dukes and anchor Arman Hall sped to victory in the event. The Gators got the accompanying 10 first-place points, while the Aggies, in finishing eighth, got one point.
For UF coach Mike “Mouse” Holloway, it was his fifth NCAA crown in the last four seasons, with three straight indoor titles (2010-12) and now consecutive outdoors (’12-13).
“Johnny Football” meets Gators football
Raise your hand if you’ve heard this regarding UF’s win at Texas A&M and the utter shutdown of Johnny Manziel and that ridiculous Aggies offense last September.
“Yeah well, it was his first college game.”
But in “Johnny Football’s” first half of his first football game, Manziel and his offense ripped the Gators for 269 yards and 17 first downs on 46 plays, and never punted.
In seven second-half possessions, A&M gained just 69 yards, tallied four first downs, punted six times and were three-and-outed four times as the visiting Gators came from behind to win 20-17 and hand the Aggies a loss -- remember, they went to Tuscaloosa and ran circles around that Crimson Tide defense in one of the upsets of the year -- that ultimately cost A&M the SEC West title.
No one knew how significant that half of football would be at the time (for both teams); or how spectacular a certain player on that field would become.
Yes, it was Manziel’s first college game and the first taste of the SEC for A&M coach Kevin Sumlin.
But I don’t think either forgot how to play football at halftime.
Instead, I think the Gators made some adjustments at intermission and went out and played one of the best defensive 30 minutes of the college football season.
A 320-minute softball game
It started just after 6 p.m., Oklahoma City time, and ended at 11:21 after 15 innings and 534 pitches.
UF’s thrilling 9-8 marathon defeat of Nebraska in the NCAA Women’s College World Series was a 5-hour, 20-minute testament to endurance and fortitude -- by both teams -- and gave Coach Tim Walton’s team a signature moment to sock away with those SEC regular-season and tournament titles.
The Gators blew a three-run lead in the bottom of the seventh, a one-run lead in the 10th and nearly let the Cornhuskers come back from two down to tie the game in Nebraska half of the 15th before left fielder Jess Damico and third baseman Stephanie Toft came up with the kind of defensive play the overachieving squad thrived on all season.
With the tying run at first and two outs, Nebraska’s Gabby Banda ripped a shot up the middle that ricocheted off pitcher Hannah Rogers and carried into the hole between short and third.
With the Husker runner headed to third, Damico charged, scooped and fired to Toft, who took the throw, blocked the bag and made the game-saving tag in one of the epic games in program history.
What a night in Tallahassee
When we last saw the Gators football squad, it fell to an inspired Louisville team in the Sugar Bowl, hardly representative of what the team accomplished in winning 11 of 12 regular season games.
The game before that one was a different story.
The Gators jumped on host and 10th-ranked Florida State, let the Seminoles back in the game (even let ‘em take a late third-quarter lead), only to quiet the crowd at Doak Campbell Stadium with a statement-making finish of defense and running game that defined Will Muschamp’s second season.
First, it was Antonio Morrison leveling FSU quarterback E.J. Manuel early in the fourth quarter and forcing him out of the game. From there, it was senior Mike Gillislee and freshman Matt Jones trampling the Seminoles for 117 rushing yards in the final period as the Gators scored 24 straight points to pull away for a 37-26 upset win.
In the end, a banner year
The UF men’s basketball team took a lot of heat for some frustrating and confounding losses.
But winning a conference basketball championship in a league that features Kentucky is something to be celebrated. Always.
And for two seniors, Kenny Boynton and Erik Murphy, it was a second SEC title in three years.
The Gators clinched the league's 2013 regular-season crown with a second-half blitz of Vanderbilt on the way to a 66-40 victory that capped an emotional Senior Night and final home game of the season.
The joyous post-game, net-cutting scene was reflective of just the sixth SEC championship for the Gators, all but one having come since the arrival of Coach Billy Donovan in 1996. The team went on to win 29 games and become the only team in the nation to reach the Elite Eight the last three years. Along the way, Boynton became just the second player in school history to eclipse 2,000 points for his UF career.
Historic lacrosse beating
Northwestern, with seven NCAA titles in the previous eight years, came to UF to try and wrap up sole possession of the American Lacrosse Conference title.
The Wildcats lost the opening draw and were down a goal after 30 seconds. They were down two goals barely a minute in; and three goals after not even 90 seconds.
When the carnage was complete, Florida -- in its fourth year of existence, mind you -- had taken down the perennial power by the score of 22-4, handing Northwestern its worst loss in 22 years and holding the Wildcats to their fewest goals in 210 matches.
Men’s swimming unseats Auburn after 16 years
The last time Auburn’s men swim team did not win the SEC title, most of its Florida counterparts were in kindergarten or pre-school.
The year was 1996.
But Auburn’s 16-year stranglehold on the conference crown -- the third-longest such streak in SEC sports history -- was wrestled away by the Gators in February, as UF raced to four individual titles and 10 top-three finishes, with junior Marcin Cieslak’s championships in both the 100 and 200 fly leading the way.
It was Florida’s 34th SEC swim title, but first since 1993 and the first for Coach Gregg Troy.
Softball sends an early message
What was supposed to be a rebuilding year debuted at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz. The Gators went in ranked 14th in the nation and by the end of the tournament had upset No. 5 Oregon, No. 3 California and No. 13 Arizona.
Walton’s bunch went on to steamroll its way to 17 straight victories to open the season, including an 8-4 defeat of reigning national champ Alabama in a non-conference game.
The fast start set in motion a surprisingly satisfying campaign (complete with a sweep of the SEC crowns) that ended with a fifth trip to WCWS in six years.
No one saw that coming, including Walton.
Florida-Georgetown met on the deck of the USS Bataan in Naval Station Mayport to open the college basketball season, but after condensation on the court made the floor too slippery to play, the game was cancelled at halftime. The Gators led 27-23.
And not because the Gators had the lead.
That the game had to be cancelled was an absolute shame but the run-up to the spectacle and emotional patriotism that accompanied it still warrant mention here.
The aura of the once-in-a-lifetime experience far outweighed the outcome.