The Florida Gators (24-5) celebrated senior night in style defeating the Vanderbilt Commodores (13-16), 66-40. In the process, the Gators not only completed a perfect 15-0 season at home, but also put the finishing touches on an outright regular season SEC Championship.
It wasn’t very pretty for most of the early going. Florida’s offense seemed to play down to Vandy’s competition, but luckily the defense was as stingy as ever. Florida shot 41.7% in the first half but missed a few layups, and miscues on entry passes into the low post were the reason Florida went into halftime with only a 24-14 lead.
Another offensive impairment was the fact that the threes weren’t falling early as the Gators hit just two in the first half.. When that happens, Florida looks stagnant and out of sync. In contrast, during the second half they made seven threes, and scored 42 points.
The two players Florida is trying to work back into the flow of the rotation — Micheal Frazier II and Will Yeguete– showed that while they are not at 100%, any contribution makes Florida significantly better. Frazier hit two threes in the second half, and Yeguete showed brief flashes of his pre-injury effort, diving for loose balls and securing inventive rebounds. When the offense began to click in the second half, it resembled the juggernaut that steam-rolled the early half of its SEC schedule.
With 2:18 left in the game, the most important benching of the game was made. Erik Murphy and Mike Rosario received a standing ovation from 10,504 people as they went to join fellow senior Kenny Boynton on the pine.
On Wednesday night, Gator Nation came together to celebrate the exploits of those three Gators more than any conference title, or defense of home court. It was a night to recognize Boynton, the McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school, a player whose work ethic and quiet leadership have guided this team. It was a night to celebrate Murphy, a shooter that went to work in the offseason determined to develop an inside game and maximize his potential as a matchup nightmare. It was also a night to heap praise upon Rosario, the Rutgers transfer and perpetual whirling dervish. A player whose new attitude off the court this year and attacking style on it has been another key to Florida’s success on the offensive end.
Tonight was also a sobering reminder that all good things do come to an end. Boynton’s unconventional shot release, Rosario’s infectious smile and Murphy sinking shots no man his size should make are a few of the moments many Gator fans won’t be able to catch in person again. It is a rarity in 2013’s college basketball landscape that seniors play such a pivotal role on a championship level team, but without them, Florida would not be in the place they are now.
Along with their teammates, those three seniors ascended a ladder at the end of the game, to cut down the nets at the O’Connell center to commemorate an outright conference championship.
There were hugs, high fives and even a few tears on the faces of some players. The pieces of that net belong in the hands of the players that tickled the twine so often this season, they should also serve as reminders that the nylon was kind to Florida every time they took the court at home this season.
There is still work to do for these Gators, to send the seniors off into the sunset with the grandest of prizes, a national championship. Immortality has been so close for this group of players, whose two consecutive trips to the elite-8 left them within two victories of being crowned champion.
A rivalry game this Saturday against Kentucky, a conference tournament and then the Big Dance all still lay ahead. The four-year journey will hopefully culminate for this senior class in Atlanta April 8th, with another ladder to ascend and another net to cut.