A young Billy Donovan, in just his third season as UF head coach, could say nothing to console his players.
“I really don’t know what to say to them, because I’ve got 13 guys just bawling their eyes out,” Donovan said after his team’s 73-72 heartbreaking loss to Gonzaga in the 1999 NCAA Tournament.
The Gators, a sixth-seed that year, allowed the No. 10 seed Bulldogs to advance on a last-second shot in the Sweet 16, sending Florida home after an impressive 22-9 season.
Former assistant coach John Pelphrey said it best after the game: “(the loss) doesn’t determine who you are as a basketball player, and it doesn’t determine who you are as a human being.”
Luckily for UF, the core of that year’s roster was made up of freshmen and sophomores. The team was in prime position to make an even deeper run during the 1999-00 season.
That year, a pair of sophomores helped lead the Gators to a memorable regular season where the team went 23-6 overall and 12-4 in the Southeastern Conference. Forward Mike Miller (14.1 PPG, 6.6 RPG) and center Udonis Haslem (11.8 PPG, 5.1 RPG) were two of the best players in college basketball that year, and their offensive prowess helped lead Florida to a 83.8 points per game average, which was good for fourth out of 318 teams, according to sports reference.
Donovan, and his Gators earned a fifth seed in the 2000 NCAA Tournament, matching up with the No. 12-seeded Butler Bulldogs (23-8).
The Bulldogs weren’t your average 12 seed either. Butler had won 15 straight games heading into that contest.
And it played like it.
UF, who had been averaging over 80 points per game up to that point, found itself in a dogfight, down 58-54 late in the second half. Timely shots from Haslem and senior Kenyan Weaks tied it and two free throws from Haslem with 15 seconds to play setup a 60-60 gridlock that brought the game into overtime.
Both teams went back and forth in the extra period until the final seconds. The Bulldogs held on to a one-point lead with eight seconds to go.
That’s when Miller took a pass from guard Teddy Dupay at the three-point line and drove the ball into the lane.
The shot willed its way over the rim and into the net.
“We were talking the other night about how we never win the close ones, how tips never go our way, how bounces never fall for us,” Haslem said after the game. “Now, even if we don’t go very far, we can all be grateful for this one for the rest of our lives.”
Just a season after falling victim to the heartbreaking NCAA Tournament loss against Gonzaga, the Gators sought redemption and they took it.
As it turns out, a loss would’ve spoiled a lot for this team.
In the second round against Illinois, Florida imposed its will, leading by double-digits for most of the second half, defeating the fourth-seeded Illini, 93-76.
That setup a second-consecutive trip to the Sweet 16, this time though, it’d be against the No. 1-seeded Duke Blue Devils.
The game was close throughout, and even when Florida stretched it out, the Blue Devils always had an answer.
Florida was down 78-74 with three minutes to go. But a Dupay three jumpstarted a 13-0 UF run to end the game.
The Gators were Elite Eight bound.
In the regional final against Oklahoma State, Florida’s press and quick-paced transition offense wore the Kowboys down, giving the Gators their second berth to the Final Four in school history after a 77-65 victory.
A team that looked dead in the water and primed for an upset loss in the first round against Butler, was now going to compete for a national championship at the Final Four.
“I think the Butler game definitely brought us closer together,” Miller said after his team’s Elite Eight victory. “It is an advantage though, because it’s better to be playing your best early rather than too late.”
Florida kept that trait going early on in the national semifinal against North Carolina.
The team ran out to a 18-3 lead to begin the game. The Tar Heels did claw their way back however, tying it at 50 a piece in the second half.
That’s when the Gators began to break the Tar Heels down, outscoring UNC 21-9 to win the game 71-59 and advance to their first national championship game in school history.
In the national final, Florida faced off with one of the best teams in the country that year: the one-seeded Michigan State Spartans.
And that night wouldn’t belong to the Gators. The Spartans were an immovable object, and Florida was unable to solve its opponent on the defensive side of the floor.
Michigan State won its second national championship in school history that day in Indianapolis, shooting over 56 percent for the game in the 89-76 win.
Haslem had an impressive 27 points but Miller only scored 10 in his last game as a Florida Gator.
“Like anything else in life, you go through tremendous learning experiences,” Donovan said after the game. “This was hopefully a tremendous learning experience that made us all better from this.”
Donovan went on to coach the Gators until 2015, bringing the program three more Final Fours and back-to-back national championship titles in 2006 and 2007.
Although the team in 2000 came up just short, it helped lay the groundwork for UF’s future squads that brought championships to Gainesville.
*Featured image Photo Credit: David Leeds / Getty Images