Thursday June 26, 2014Chris Harry: 10 Team Moments to Remember for Gators in 2013-14
The UF softball team celebrates after winning its first national title. (Photo: Tim Casey)
The UF softball team celebrates after winning its first national title. (Photo: Tim Casey)
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The final event of the NCAA Track and Field Championships on June 14 brought the curtain down on the 2013-14 sports calendar for the University of Florida.
No one can say it wasn’t eventful.
Name the last Gators sports year that wasn’t.
Actually, there is something about this year’s Top 10 team moments that differ from my previous ones for GatorZone. This one doesn’t include an entry from the fall sports calendar. Since this list highlights the feel-good times, can’t imagine anyone disagreeing.
And I also can’t imagine 4-8 happening again for a long, long time.
With that, when it comes to how I’ll remember the indelible instances of the Gators in ’13-14, these are the ones that jump out at me.
1) A SENIOR DAY FOR THE AGES
If you were fortunate enough to be in the O’Connell Center on March 8, 2014, you were treated not only to one of the all-time feats by the UF basketball team, but one of most emotional experiences in the history of Gators sports.
That’s what the foursome of Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete and Casey Prather meant not only to athletic program, but to the university.
It was a feel-good party that could have lasted for days.
On the heels of the most disappointing football season in 34 years, Coach Billy Donovan put a senior-laden team on the floor that galvanized Gator Nation and took all things orange and blue on an incredible ride.
In a season crammed with so much achievement, the pre-game senior send-off of that Fab Foursome, the ensuing 19-point pummeling of Kentucky and postgame net-cutting celebration was like a three-hour party that no one wanted to end.
The win capped the historic 18-0 season and sent the Gators -- namely, Young, Wilbekin, Yeguete and Prather -- off to do their thing in the postseason.
The ending was not storybook -- the Gators lost to eventual NCAA champion Connecticut in the national semifinals -- but the run-up to that Final Four was something no one associated with UF sports ever will forget.
2) SOFTBALL PLAYS HARDBALL IN OKC
A midseason run of six losses in seven games against three excellent teams -- swept in three at Tennessee, two setbacks at home against Alabama and a mid-week defeat versus Florida State -- made UF’s softball charge into and at the Women’s College World Series somewhat unforeseeable.
Yet there were the Gators, crushing powerhouse Washington in the NCAA Super Regional, and then reeling off five straight wins -- three by shutout -- at the WCWS and brooming rival Alabama in the championship series for the first softball national title in UF history.
Five times in the previous six seasons, Florida had reached Oklahoma City and fallen short of its championship quest. That made the sixth time in seven seasons all the sweeter.
Take a bow, Coach Tim Walton.
Oh, and you too, Hannah Rogers.
Rogers, the program’s only four-time All-American, mowed down batter after batter in the postseason, finishing with a 7-0 record in the NCAA Tournament (with five shutouts and a 0.64 ERA).
Meanwhile, the Gators parlayed timely hitting by the likes of Kirsti Merritt, Stephanie Tofft and Bailey Castro with spectacular defense and, in the end, outscored the NCAA oppositions by a whopping 81-10.
3) TYING ON ANOTHER NCAA CROWN
When the final rotations of the NCAA Gymnastics Champions were done, Florida and Oklahoma -- stunningly -- were locked atop the leaderboard at 198.175 points.
Confusion reigned for several minutes while the crowd at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex buzzed with anticipation of how officials would break the tie.
Well, they didn’t.
NCAA rules do not provide for tiebreakers in gymnastics, which was just fine with UF coach Rhonda Faehn. That meant the Gators were national champs for the second year in a row. [Watch]
The Gators actually trailed when Kytra Hunter and Bridgette Caquatto went to the mat for their floor routines. The two had to post minimum scores of 9.95 to pull their team even with the Sooners.
Pretty clutch, but that’s what champions do.
4) PERFECTION ATTAINED
After the Gators built a 15-point lead midway through the second half, few figured the SEC Tournament title game would go down to the final possession. Yet, there was Kentucky, trailing by just one point, with the ball and chance to zap UF’s shot at a perfect run through league competition.
Fittingly, it was Wilbekin, the SEC Player of the Year and one of the best on-ball defenders in America, smothering UK guard Aaron Harrison’s attempt to drive the ball and forced Harrison into an awkward handoff to James Young coming around on a screen.
Young slipped and lost the ball as time expired for a 61-60 victory that not only gave the Gators just their fourth SEC Tournament crown, but a sparkling 21-0 mark against conference teams. [Watch]
In the 27 previous seasons the SEC played an 18-game regular-season schedule, no team went 18-0, much less piled on with a run to the tournament title.
Simply put, it will rank as one of the most dominant -- if not the most -- wire-to-wire season in league history.
5) WHEN MID-WEEK GAMES DIDN’T MATTER
The regular season included losses to Florida Gulf Coast, Florida Atlantic, Jacksonville, Florida A&M and Mercer.
It also included a 21-9 mark in SEC play, which was two games better than next-best Ole Miss and enough to give the Gators the regular-season conference title.
UF clinched the crown with a 4-2 win in the second of a three-game series at Tennessee. The 21 wins were one shy of the school record for victories in an SEC campaign.
The Gators went on to fall in the league tournament championship game, but still -- thanks to the high-powered RPI via a brutal schedule -- grab the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
UF went two and out in a crazy home regional marred by rain delays, but the Gators will hope to use a nucleus of solid underclassmen -- with freshman starting pitcher Logan Shore at the forefront -- to build toward the 2015 season and defense of another SEC championship.
6) FANTASTIC FOUR KEY BIG FINISH AT EUGENE
The men’s track team went to the NCAA meet looking to defend its back-to-back championships. The Gators did not do so -- congratulations to host Oregon -- but the 4x100 relay team of Antwan Wright, Hugh Graham Jr., Arman Hall and anchor Dedric Dukes won its race in a blistering time of 38.73 seconds and propelled UF to an overall second-place team finish.
Later that day, Dukes also took first place in the 200 meters with a time of 19.91 that marked the fourth-fastest ever run at the NCAA meet and placed him alongside Dennis Mitchell (1989) and John Capel (1999) as the only 200-meter champs in UF history.
Junior Marquis Dendy also won two events, the long jump (26-3) and triple jump (55-11 1/4) to help Coach Mike Holloway’s squad pile up the 70 points that were 18 behind the champion Ducks, but 29 1/2 ahead of third-place Texas A&M.
7) NEW ROSTER, SIMILAR RESULTS FOR LAX
When lacrosse coach Amanda O’Leary said goodbye in 2013 to 13 seniors who helped build a program from the ground floor to national prominence, well, it just made sense there would be some fall back.
The Gators, in Year 5 of their existence, swept the American Lacrosse Conference regular-season and tournament titles with huge victories against powerhouse Northwestern. [Watch]
Led by junior midfielder Shannon Gilroy, who set or tied 13 school records and became the first UF player to tally more than 100 points in a single season, the Gators reached the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament, only to fall in overtime 12-11 to the same Northwestern squad they beat twice.
Considering UF returns the bulk of its team next season, don’t expect to hear much chatter about rebuild.
8) GATORS TAKE DOWN NO. 1
The women’s tennis team entered the NCAA Championships seeded eighth, their second-lowest seeding since the tournament went to its current format in 1987.
The Gators handled South Carolina State and Oklahoma State fairly routinely in the first two rounds at home, then blanked Vanderbilt in the Round of 16 to set up a meeting with rival and top-ranked Georgia on the Bulldogs’ home courts.
Down went the Dawgs. [Watch]
Ultimately, the Gators lost to UCLA in the national semifinals, but the run made for UF’s 24th trip to the semis over the last 28 years and gave Coach Roland Thornqvist his 400th career coaching victory.
It was also UF’s third straight win over a team ranked No. 1.
9) ONE UNBELIEVABLE WEEK ON THE ROAD
Feb. 11 at Tennessee. [Watch]
Feb. 15 at Kentucky. [Watch]
Those were back-to-back dates on the UF basketball schedule and they took the Gators to places -- the two largest venues in the SEC -- where they had not won in the same season since 1988.
What’s more, the Gators had lost ugly at Knoxville each of the previous two seasons. As for Lexington? Florida was an all-time 8-48 there and UK coach John Calipari’s bunch was 80-2 since he took over in 2010.
So much for history -- recent or otherwise.
The Gators handled the Volunteers down the stretch for a 67-58 victory, then rode that momentum by erasing a seven-point lead late in the second half and shocked the Wildcats -- and a stunned/bummed Rupp Arena crowd -- 69-59 just four days later.
In both games, Wilbekin tallied career highs for points -- staking his claim to SEC Player of the Year -- and Michael Frazier II hit huge 3-point shots at pivotal moments late.
Once the Gators proved they could withstand and answer adversity in those places, there was no stopping their rampage through the league.
Home or away.
10) EIGHT IS ENOUGH
The dwindling numbers of the Florida women’s basketball team was a topical subject early in the season, but Coach Amanda Butler realized the eight that suited up were plenty when the Gators went to Kentucky and upset the nation’s sixth-ranked team in the second SEC game of the season.
The Gators had lost six straight to the Cats and 10 straight against ranked opponents. UF trailed by nine in the second half, then rallied to tie the game with 12 minutes to play and held small leads here and there the rest of the way.
Something had to go wrong, right?
Instead, senior point guard Jaterra Bonds scored 23 points and freshman center Ronni Williams, playing in just her second SEC game, posted a double-double, as the Gators left Memorial Coliseum with an 83-73 win that served notice -- to themselves and the league -- that Florida would be a player in the SEC race. [Watch]
The Gators went on to finish 8-8 in conference play, qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the third time in Butler’s tenure and upset sixth-seeded Dayton in opening-round action of the Stanford Regional.