Part of the magic of college sports is a feeling you can only get when you're at a game. It is that feeling of bonding, the feeling that everyone sitting around you becomes your best friends over the course of a game.
Last night at the O'Connell Center in Gainesville, the student section felt that way. As a student at the University of Florida who has been a Gator only through Tebow's last season, I had not experienced that feeling.
I had felt complacency when our football team went 12-0, only to get mauled by Alabama in the SEC championship game. I had felt disappointment in the 2009-10 men's basketball team, who consistently found ways to lose. I had felt embarrassment for this year's football team. Up until last night, I had felt anxiety about this year's basketball team, a team of inconsistency and lack of leadership.
But as Kentucky's Brandon Knight pulled up for a deep three-pointer with time running out and the Gators up two points, and as time seemed to stop, and as the ball hit off the left side of the rim, everything I knew about being a fan of the Gators changed. I could spend many paragraphs breaking down the game, but that isn't what is important about last night's victory. This was the night the Gators got their chomp back.
This was the night that the student-athletes on the court stopped playing for the name on the back of their jersey and started playing for the one on the front. This was the night the Rowdy Reptiles, the student section that has been skeptically cheering for the boys in orange and blue all year, finally began to believe.
This was a night where, with a record 12,633 in attendance, most dressed in Florida orange and many dressed in Kentucky blue, a dazzling spectacle of a basketball game was played and the better team came out on top. This was a night of a team effort. It was a win to widen the gap in the SEC, but it was more so a win to lessen the gap between expectation and performance.
For a team that was in the preseason top 10, the Gators had underperformed all season. Losses to the likes of Jacksonville and South Carolina, and frustrating wins like a narrow win at Auburn, had led everyone, perhaps including the players themselves, to question the legitimacy of this team.
But they beat the Georgia Bulldogs in a gutsy double overtime game. They fought off the Vanderbilt Commodores in overtime on Tuesday. Saturday night was the crown jewel of the season. The Gators beat the Kentucky Wildcats, and though the victory was only by two points, the magnitude of the victory went beyond the court.
Walking back to my car after the game, I heard yells from across campus of "It's great...to be...a Florida Gator." I high-fived Gator football player Andre Debose. Alumni had huge grins on their faces, perhaps remembering the days when it was them running around, arms in the air.
Most of the crowd stayed minutes after the final buzzer. We tried to listen to Chandler Parsons getting interviewed after the game, but couldn't hear him because the roar of the crowd. And we stayed a few more minutes to sing along to "You Can Call Me Al," a Paul Simon song that is a classic in Gainesville.
Don't get me wrong—the University of Florida is a football school. This is a school that lives and dies by the gridiron. But last night, the boys of the hardwood were the heroes. The young men who played their hearts out played a team game. No one player stood out. The game was won by 17-year-old freshman Scottie Wilbekin, who had nine points off the bench. Or maybe it was Alex Tyus, whose late defense and clutch shot from the baseline put the Gators ahead for good. Chandler Parsons had 17 points and 12 rebounds.
But really, none of these players won the game. The game was won by 18-22 free throw shooting by a team whose trouble at the charity stripe had been its Achilles' heel all year. The game was won by transfer Mike Rosario, who, despite being ineligible to play this year, was on the end of the bench as a cheerleader. It was won by the crowd, who never wavered in its raucous cheering. The game was won by Billy Donovan, who coached an incredible game, making the right substitutions, drawing up the right plays and keeping his usual calm.
No matter who was truly responsible for this win, it was a victory for the Gator Nation. In the mosh pit of the student section after the game, I realized for the first time in my 20 years of life that this is what it was like to be part of a family that I wasn't even related to. This is what college sports is all about.
And on a rainy Saturday night in Gainesville, this was the night that the Gators got their chomp back.
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