GAINESVILLE -- No. 1 Florida is chasing perfection -- and history -- Saturday at noon against No. 25 Kentucky, but a pregame ceremony honoring its decorated senior class will serve as an appropriate appetizer on an emotionally charged afternoon.
The Gators, winners of a school-record 23 straight, will pay homage to a special (and rare) group of four seniors -- Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete and Patric Young -- who have played over 500 games together and share the discernible scars from three consecutive Elite Eight exits.
It’s a weathered, warted but invested quartet, discovering enviable (and possibly record) successes despite navigating through cobblestone-esque roads.
Each player’s story is different, and while chemistry and experience are cliché characterizations of UF’s four seniors, overcoming adversity is what seems to truly define them.
Four years ago, a hotshot prospect (Young), a kid (Wilbekin), a project (Yeguete) and a wide-eyed winger (Prather) came together. On Saturday, they stand as the greatest senior class in UF’s history.
It wasn’t always pretty, and was rarely easy, but Florida’s quartet -- forged by toughness, patience and poise -- is exactly how the whole can be better than the sum of its parts.
The seniors, none stud nor slouch, have combined for three Southeastern Conference titles, nine NCAA Tournament wins and stand just a single victory away from becoming the first team in league history to go 18-0 in conference play.
Florida’s special class is the perfect storm of madness meets good fortune. Young is a former McDonald’s All-American who gradually found consistency, but never developed fast enough to see his lottery projection fulfilled. Wilbekin is a former local high school product thrust into adulthood too soon, yet newfound maturity (via multiple suspensions) saw him transform into UF’s best and most indispensable player.
Prather is a dynamic slasher who wanted to be a prolific shooter, but wasn’t. After flirting with transferring, he decided to stay in Gainesville and blossomed into the team’s top scorer.
Finally, Yeguete is and has always been the heart and soul of the group. The glue-guy who’s body has been undone by multiple injuries, the fauxhawked forward remains a key-cog in UF’s championship run as its energy, heartbeat and intangible force.
Together, the four seniors have accomplished great things, and while they’re hardly ready to commemorate their careers, each player was able to reflect on their journey and what tomorrow’s final home game means.
Below is a compilation of quotes, including a nugget from coach Billy Donovan.
On how the group deserves to be remembered:
"I think first and foremost great kids, great people, people of substance, of character. None of them are perfect. They've all made mistakes. They've all been through their ups and downs, but I think at the heart of who they are, they're really great kids. The other think the other thing that I would say is that this institution means an enormous amount to them personally. Them putting on a Florida uniform, them playing here, has meant a lot to them and something they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. And then I think the other part of it is their teammates have been equally important to them as the institution has been. I think they're kids that worked really, really hard and tried each and every day to do the best that they can."
On how the seniors will be remembered:
“I think we all have our own personal story. I think we all went through a couple things in our four years here. Me and my injury. Casey wasn't playing a lot first few years and now he's having a great year. Pat kind of being up and down a little bit. Scottie being in trouble. I think guys are just staying in the moment, just staying with the process. We fought through a lot of adversity we had and just staying connected. That's pretty much how we'll be remembered.”
On the group’s special bond:
"We knew how close we are and how much we could accomplish as a group. We had a lot of fun here, especially with this group this year, and we're just excited for what's next and we know there's more out there for us."
On tomorrow’s atmosphere:
“Yeah, I’ve thought about it quite a bit. It definitely brings back some memories of just how long I’ve been here. But I just want to end it the right way, just playing hard and giving it my all for this last home game."
On not relishing the moment until it’s over:
“That’s how I want it to be. Obviously I want to make the most out of it, but I can’t let whatever moment it is, and the rest of the guys can’t let whatever moment it is be bigger than the big game we have to play. That’s what we’ve been trying to focus on.”
On the class’ accomplishments:
"Hopefully, the greatest thing hasn't come yet. But as of now, this class has gone through a lot, from guys thinking about transferring to staying in school, to not playing games with injuries, all those things, this team, this senior class, has persevered, stuck together and won."
On his attitude this season:
“I knew this was my last chance to do something great here. I just really wanted to give it my best shot by putting in the work during the offseason. I’ve been focused on doing whatever I can to be more connected to my teammates, being a better teammate and trying to improve myself mentally for the ups and downs that come during the season and focus in on working harder each day.”
On the quartet’s relationship:
“We’re so close. Even from the first day we met we just clicked. I don’t know what it was about it, but we clicked instantly. Since then we’ve just improved our relationship on and off the court.”
On his bond with Donovan:
“It’s grown quite a bit because he knows some of the obstacles I came through from earlier experiences in high school. He’s been a great guy and great mentor who has prepared me for the games and for the future.”
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