My 2006 Final Four experience: Remembering 2000

After the Gators won the National Title a few weeks ago, I talked a lot about the team, but not much about my actual experience this time around. I’ve said many times that some of my fondest college memories were collected during March 2000, when Florida made an improbable run to the National Title game. I was nearing the end of my sophomore year and had tons of friends who, like me, were rabid Gator football fans. Billy Donovan hadn’t been at UF but a few seasons and his first couple seasons weren’t very memorable. Nobody remembered very much from the 1998-1999 season, but we all remembered losing to Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. During the 1999-2000 basketball season, I think we started to appreciate winning and we began coining terms like “Billy Ball”, which was a reference to Donovan’s up-tempo style of basketball. Admittedly, I didn’t watch many basketball games in 1999, and when March rolled around in 2000, I don’t even think I filled out a bracket. I thought it was silly and didn’t see any reason to drop money to “compete” against sports gurus and girls who chose the winner based on school colors or mascots.

I didn’t see the Butler game because it was on a Friday afternoon and I was probably too busy skipping class to even care. But I heard about the end of the game and, like many other Gators, suddenly had an interest in Gator basketball. That Sunday afternoon, I was one of several students who gathered at some friends’ apartment to watch us play Illinois in the second round. I don’t think any of us had high expectations, but we all had high hopes. When your team hangs on because of a miraculous buzzer-beater, you have no choice but to start believing, and that’s what we all did. We soundly beat Illinois and we were back in the Sweet 16 for the second straight year. We didn’t expect much because we had to play Duke next, but we knew it was no fluke that Billy D. had taken us to the Sweet 16 twice in a row. He had taken a losing basketball program and turned us into a contender. Still, our expectations were low as we geared up to face the perennial powerhouse Blue Devils.

That was a long week, but the game itself went by quickly. “We just beat DUKE!” We all said that at some point that weekend. We couldn’t believe it and we really didn’t know what to do about it. By this time, the crowd of students watching the game in my friends’ apartment was growing pretty quickly. There were several of us for the Illinois game, but we all watched comfortably on a couch, or a chair. For the Duke game, there were more bodies and less room; people were sitting on the arms of the couches, piled on the chairs, seated on the floor. By the time we played Oklahoma State, we were packed in as tight as we could be, the windows were all open and we were still sweating like pigs. We were used to that from football season, but we typically didn’t bunch like this in the Spring.

Changes had to be made for our Final Four game against North Carolina–another TV was brought in along with some couches, a makeshift bench was made on a rail between the dining and living rooms, every window and door was opened and the fans were all on full-blast to keep the air moving through the place. This was by far my biggest sporting event as a Gator and I think most of my friends felt the same. None of us were around in 1996 when we won the National Title in football, and most of our football seasons thus far had been anticlimactic because we had come to expect nothing but perfection from The Ol’ Ball Coach. SEC titles were nice, but we didn’t really get up for them like we would’ve if we hadn’t won the National Title a few years earlier. Basketball was different, though, because we didn’t expect to win. We didn’t even really think we had much of a chance, but we wanted to make sure we saw it if we pulled off an upset. After the game, we all ran out onto 34th Street and screamed, jumped, waived at cars and generally acted like idiots. It was awesome. “We beat North Carolina!” We all said it, but we could hardly believe it: we were playing for the National Title… in basketball!

The Michigan State game is kind of a blur to me. I think that’s partially because we lost, but partially because the game was pretty boring in general. Tom Izzo basically put together the perfect game plan to beat us: don’t allow the Gators to play Billy Ball. Michigan State took 30 seconds to shoot on every possession, slowed us way down in transition, played good defense and hit most of their shots. From the highest of highs comes the lowest of lows, and we felt it. This was the first time most of us had experienced a National Title game, and it was also the first time most of us had experienced losing a National Title game. There were about 70 of us there to watch, and no one said a word after the final buzzer. We just sat there, quietly wondering if we could make another run next year.