Florida Gators have unfinished March Madness business

In some ways, this was the only way it could’ve happened: the storybook ending of a magical season. Four Florida seniors, in their home finale, facing their biggest rival – the Kentucky Wildcats. After their framed jerseys had been given, after the player introductions were announced, and after their highlights were broadcast on CBS (for all of us watching at home), the only thing left to do was play ball. And once again, this special group of men didn’t disappoint.

Florida handily dispatched Kentucky by a score of 84-65. At some points, before a raucous crowd unwilling to be denied perfection, the first-half lead grew to 22 points. Combined, the four seniors (Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, Will Yeguete, and Casey Prather) totaled 51 points, 20 rebounds, and a 65% field goal percentage on the day.

The performance capped off the first 18-0 season in SEC history. Florida also clinched back-to-back SEC regular season championships (third in the last four years), protected its No. 1 ranking, and finished a whopping six games ahead of conference runner-up Kentucky.

The Gators were unstoppable for most of the first half, shooting a blazing 61.5% from the floor against one of the best defenses in the country. They made 14 of their first 21 shots, and went 7-for-12 from the three-point line. Young alone had as many points in the paint (10) as the entire Kentucky team in the opening half. Florida’s 49 first-half points are the most Kentucky has allowed in a game all season.

Yet, coming out of the locker room with a 21-point lead, the Gators were sluggish. Maybe it was the emotion of Senior Day, maybe Kentucky started playing inspired ball, or maybe it was something in the Gatorade. Whatever the case, the Wildcats clawed back from the first-half blowout by scoring 28 paint points, equal to their entire point total in the first 20 minutes. A 15-to-0 run trimmed the deficit to 10 points, and Florida appeared to be on the ropes.

Then the seniors answered the call – yet again. Wilbekin nailed a three-point shot, ignited a Gators shooting spree, and the route was back on. Defensively, Florida collected 32 rebounds, came up with 7 steals, and forced 14 Kentucky turnovers. After the final buzzer sounded, Young fittingly announced that the nets would (finally) be cut down. It was time to toast the class of the SEC at home and in style.

As satisfying as a sweep (really, any victory) over Kentucky is, this probably will not be the last time the two teams will face off this season. The thriller in Rupp and Saturday’s dominant victory in Gainesville were only a prelude to the most important (likely) matchup of them all. Barring an upset in the early rounds of the SEC Tournament, both teams will be on a crash course for Sunday’s championship game in the Georgia Dome.

Anything can happen in the SEC Tournament (see 2013 when Florida lost to Ole Miss; 2012 when Vanderbilt stunned Kentucky; and 2008 when Georgia completed a magical run by besting Arkansas in this same Georgia Dome), but make no mistake about it folks, this thing is Florida’s to lose. It is another empty box on the “must do” list of the 2013-14 season.

Beat Kentucky at Rupp: check. Beat Tennessee at Rocky Top: check. Beat Arkannsas at Bud Walton Arena: check. Own the longest home court (and overall) win streak in school history: check and check. Undefeated in conference play: check.

Those are all great, but now the BIG check marks await: winning the SEC tournament, locking down the overall No. 1 seed, possibly having to beat old March foes Michigan and/or Louisville, getting past the Elite Eight for the first time since 2007, and cutting down the nets in Dallas.

I had the distinct pleasure of watching Saturday’s game with my dad and stepmom on a beautiful, crisp afternoon in Blue Ridge, GA. Neither had seen Florida play all year, and there was more than a little bit of pleasure watching their reactions to the Gators’ inspired and cohesive play. Combining family and Florida Gators athletics is always a special experience for me, especially on a sun-drenched Saturday in the North Georgia mountains.

While there was jubilation all around, my father had the quote of the afternoon, exclaiming, “Damn, these Gator boys are good.” Yes, Dad, they definitely are. They just might be good enough to dance all the way up the floor to Arlington in April.

Time will tell, but Saturday was a big clawprint in the sand to let the world know that this team means business. It’s Final Four or bust. From here on out, it’s win or go home, and this Florida Gator team – if it keeps playing like this – might be going home with some hardware. The fun is just beginning.