GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When he first met fellow Florida freshmen Patric Young, Will Yeguete and Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather immediately sensed something special.
It took a while for everyone else to catch on.
Each player would eventually overcome injury, uncertainty and heartbreaking defeat to orchestrate one of the most-successful runs in school history.
It is not finished yet, but the unshakable, unbreakable bond of Florida’s four seniors is now well established.
“We’re so close,” Prather said this week. “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.”
Four years later, Florida’s four amigos enter their final regular-season game — at noon EST on Saturday against Kentucky — having set a standard for all incoming freshmen who follow. Florida’s home finale will be broadcast nationally on CBS and the seniors are slated to be honored before tipoff.
The Gators’ 2010 class is the first to win three SEC championships and has totaled more wins — 112 and counting — than any group of seniors.
“Hopefully the greatest thing hasn’t come yet,” Young said.
The top-ranked Gators (28-2, 17-0 SEC) ride a school-record 22-game winning streak into Saturday’s noon visit from Kentucky (22-8, 12-5). With a win against the Wildcats, UF would become the first 18-0 conference champion and fourth SEC team since 1960 to go undefeated in league play, joining Kentucky’s 1996, 2003 and 2012 teams.
Next week, UF will seek its first SEC Tournament title since 2007. The Gators then will begin pursuit of the ultimate prize — a NCAA championship.
After being bounced three straight years in the Elite Eight, the battle scars are deep, as well as a reminder of what this class has been able to overcome.
“This class has gone through a lot,” Young said. “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.”
While each showed enough signs early on to indicate he had a future with the Gators, success never came easily for any of the four seniors.
“It’s really been a process for them over four years, and they have steadily gotten better,” Donovan said. “The thing that I’m most proud about them is they’ve stayed the course.”
Young, 22, arrived a McDonald’s All-American from Jacksonville with the body of an NBA power forward. But the 6-foot-9, 240-pound Young rarely would dominate the competition at UF, instead learning to impact the Gators in other ways.
“Every single day you have a chance to impact the team with your attitude and effort,” he said. “It took me a little while to understand that it wasn’t always about me. It’s about our team and about winning.”
No play sums up Young’s maturation more his diving save of a loose ball last month at Tennessee.
With 1:32 remaining and UF ahead 61-55, Young chased down a missed shot, dove between two Vols and as he tumbled out of bounds barely saved the ball to a teammate. The play allowed the Gators to run down the clock and hold on for just the second win in their previous nine trips to Knoxville.
Afterward, Donovan called Young’s save the “play of the year” for the Gators.
Yeguete’s career at Florida has been built on hustle plays, rebounding and defense. But the 6-foot-8, 240-pound native of France has suffered the consequences of his hard-playing style.
Yeguete’s sophomore season ended in February 2011 when he broke his foot. A knee injury sidelined Yeguete, 22, last February, and he — and the Gators’ defense — never fully recovered, though he returned for the postseason.
While Donovan allowed last month that Yeguete is “maybe not the same athlete he was a couple years ago,” he did return from offseason knee surgery to start every game.
Meanwhile, Prather, 22, has never been better than this season. The 6-foot-6 forward averaged 3.1 points during his first three years, but leads UF in scoring (14.5 ppg) to go with career-high 5.3 rebounds a game.
Until this season, shaky decision-making and injuries undercut Prather’s singular athletic ability. After his sophomore campaign, Prather quietly contemplated transferring and then returned only to suffer two concussions and a severe ankle sprain during the first few months of his junior season.
Prather’s perseverance has paid off.
“I’m always a guy that tries to stick with it,” he said. “I just give my best shot anytime I can.”
No one in the senior class has come farther than Wilbekin, at 20 the youngest of four players.
Wilbekin missed the season’s first five games because of his second suspension in eight months. Last summer, Donovan gave Wilbekin, a 6-foot-2 Gainesville native, the option to transfer. Wilbekin returned to become UF’s leader and the front-runner for SEC player of the year honors.
An excellent defensive player ever since he stepped on campus, Wilbekin has developed into a clutch scorer. He hit key baskets down the stretch in close wins versus Auburn, at Tennessee and at Arkansas and sank critical freethrows during a win at Kentucky and versus Missouri.
“He went through a lot, and obviously it was the best thing for him in terms of helping him to grow all the way around,” Donovan said. “I think off the court and on the court there are correlations for how you play.”
Wilbekin and the Gators’ seniors are proof.
Basketball brought them together and friendship bound them. Together, UF’s four seniors will be remembered as one.
“I feel like we’ve achieved a lot of great things,” Prather said. “Of course, we still have a little while to go. But this is a group of guys who came in working together, hungry from the get-go.
“Just proud of the things we’ve accomplished together.”