NEW ORLEANS — The lasting image will be of a ball bouncing, harmlessly and repeatedly, like the seconds ticking away from a basketball season.
Thirty seconds to go, and Erving Walker crouched at midcourt, dribbling the ball, taking his time, as nonchalant as a shopper comparing peaches. The score was tied at 60, and the clock was winding down, and Walker … well, Walker bounced the ball.
Twenty seconds to go. It was turn-out-the-lights time. It was which-way-to-the-Final-Four time. And still, Walker bounced the ball.
Ten seconds to go, and still nothing. Eight. Seven. By now, you might figure that the Florida Gators would begin their final assault. Surely, Walker would drive the lane, wouldn't he? That way, he could hit a shot, or he could draw a foul, or he could feed a teammate, or he could kick out to another shooter.
Instead, Walker bounced the ball, claiming the final half minute as his own. Walker kept dribbling, turning his teammates into spectators, turning the New Orleans Arena into clock watchers. The goal was to avoid giving Butler a shot of its own, of course, but there is also such a thing as waiting too long.
Five seconds to go, and by now, this was not just a matter of taking the last shot. This was a matter of there being no other options than a 3-pointer by a guard who missed six of his seven shots from beyond the arc during the game. Had Walker been a couple of seconds quicker, perhaps he could have driven to the basket and drawn a foul or found a teammate. Instead, he could only slide to his right, where the screen he expected did not await. He threw up the final shot, and it missed badly.
Five minutes of overtime later and a season was over.
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Eventually, this Gators team will be remembered fondly. After all, it was the team that brought expectations back to Florida basketball, a team that hadn't won a game that mattered in four years.
They were an overachieving bunch, these Gators. They were athletic, and they were unselfish, and somehow or another, they reached the Elite Eight. Eventually, people will think of it that way. They will talk about how well Walker played against UCLA and how well Kenny Boynton and Alex Tyus played against BYU and how well Vernon Macklin played against Butler.
But not now.
Today, there is only disappointment.
Today, the final act of the Gators was out of character, out of synch and, yes, out of the tournament.
The Gators went down hard Saturday afternoon, losing a 74-71 overtime game to Butler. Suddenly, you would not have recognized this team. The shooters could not score, and the muscle could not rebound. An 11-point lead with 9:26 to play was not enough.
There were a dozen ways the Gators lost this game. To some, the running-down-of-the-clock will be the final frustration. For others, it will be the way they were embarrassed (16-8) on the offensive boards. You could debate the way the Gators shot 3-pointers (1-for-10 in regulation), or the way they abandoned their inside game, or the lack of impact of SEC player of the year Chandler Parsons, or the missed jumper by Boynton with 13.9 seconds to go in overtime when even coach Billy Donovan thought he should have driven to the basket.
For whatever reason, there at crunch time, the Gators no longer looked cohesive, and they no longer seemed ferocious, and they no longer seemed efficient. They abandoned what was working, and for the first time since December, they looked less like a team and more like a collection of parts.
"Offensively, I wish he would have played a little more to our character," Donovan said. "But it wasn't that kind of game."
Still, there will be great debate whether it was Butler that stopped Florida's inside game or if it was Florida that stopped itself. With 15:50 to go in regulation, for instance, Macklin had 21 points on 10-for-12 shooting. The rest of the way, more than 21 minutes when you include overtime, he got only two more shots. Part of the reason was that Macklin was in and out of the game with foul trouble. Part of it, a frustrated Tyus said, was the guards stopped getting the ball inside.
This is what losing a chance at the Final Four feels like for a team. It is a no-man's land between accomplishment and disappointment. It is a painful time to take a loss, but it's only possible for the teams good enough to get here. This soon afterward, it is hard for a player to balance the feelings.
"There will be a time when they look back on where they were after the Jacksonville game or after the Central Florida game," Donovan said. "Then they'll see a better picture of how far they came. You never want it to end. But that's the price."
Eventually, Florida fans will love this team again. It probably overcame more flaws, and worse moments, than any Gator team that got this far. Yet, the Gators lasted longer than Pitt, longer than Duke, longer than Ohio State. All in all, it wasn't a bad journey.
For today, however, it's easy to wonder if they should have been able to make one more step.