July 17, 2017
The latest great Gator day — the one in Omaha — jumped right to the head of an eventful pack.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The 2016-17 Florida Gators athletic season finished with a bang.
Think about it. Mere hours from the Memorial Day weekend, UF was without an NCAA championship for its fiscal-year calendar. Over the course of the next month, the Gators captured a trio of national titles and played for another to cap a memorable 10 months.
Over the next three days, FloridaGators.com will review and relive the highlights of ’16-17, starting with this installment of the Top 10 team moments, followed by a look back at the 10 individual moments that won’t be forgotten, plus the year’s best photos, courtesy of staff photographer Tim Casey and his staff, after that.
You may disagree with the rankings. You may feel some team or someone has been slighted. That’s OK.
But we can all agree these instances will endure in UF athletic lore.
1) WORLD SERIES CHAMPS, AT LAST
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 28, 2017
The Gators had taken better teams to the College World Series, including several under the guidance of recruiting warlord Kevin O’Sullivan. His 2017 squad probably didn’t have the resume of his previous six that reached Omaha, but those teams didn’t have Alex Faedo or Brady Singer or Michael Byrne or Tyler Dyson on the mound, nor the flair for the big moment like this bunch that brought home the hardware by sweeping Southeastern Conference rival LSU in the CWS championship series.
Faedo was spectacular in firing 14 1/3 scoreless innings in Games 1 and 3, both wins over Texas Christian, that allowed the Gators to reach the title series. In the opener against LSU, it was Singer keeping the Tigers at bay, allowing UF to build a lead, and Byrne staving off a late rally for a 4-3 win that marked Florida’s 19th one-run victory of the season.
In Game 2 of the finals, O’Sullivan went with Dyson, the freshman who came to the rescue in the rain-ravaged Super Regional against Wake Forest. In just the second start of his career, Dyson limited LSU to just one run and three hits before Byrne and Jackson Kowar worked the final three innings in scoreless fashion and — after the Gators, with a precarious 2-1 lead, erupted for four runs in the bottom of the eighth — dog-piled into Florida sport history when Kowar induced a groundout to put a 6-1 win in the books.
It was Florida’s first NCAA title in baseball in the program’s 103-year history. The Gators also became the first SEC school to win national championships in football, basketball and baseball — the so-called Big Three — and the nation’s only Division-I program to do so over the last 50 years.
2) SAY CHEEZ!
The play didn’t win a championship, but as far as moments go it was as unforgettable as they come.
It was right around 12:30 a.m. ET, yet the entire March Madness-watching world was tuned in on the final Sweet 16 game of the NCAA Tournament when — with the Gators down by two — Canyon Barry inbounded the ball to junior point guard Chris Chiozza with just four seconds remaining in the East Region semifinal at Madison Square Garden. Chiozza took five dribbles as he weaved through the Badgers’ defense, then jump-stopped an off-balance, one-handed, three-point floater as he soared toward the goal.
I’m not going to say you had to be there to truly appreciate it. I’ve heard too many stories about the scene, for example, at several watering holes in midtown Gainesville that night.
But to be courtside at the world’s basketball Mecca and witness up close such a thrilling and pulsating instant (plus its aftermath) in Florida athletic history left quite the impact.
3) THE STAND
As a Category 4 hurricane was forcing evacuations up and down Florida’s east coast, fans at LSU actually perpetuated a narrative that the Gators had pushed to postpone their Oct. 8 home date against the Tigers because — get this — they were scared of playing the game. These were actual adults lobbing these barbs.
So it was, the game eventually was rescheduled for the regular-season finale and moved to Baton Rouge. Before the ball was even kicked off, the Tigers’ best pro prospect, running back Leonard Fournette, shoved a UF assistant coach during a pre-game, smack-talk scrum that illustrated the bad blood that had been building for six weeks.
And it all came down to mite vs. mite and will vs. will.
Florida’s defense stuffed LSU tailback Derrius Guice on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line as time expired to give the No. 21 Gators a pulsating 16-10 road victory at Tiger Stadium that clinched the Southeastern Conference East Division crown and sent the Gators to their second straight SEC Championship Game. As sophomore defensive end Cece Jefferson would call it afterward, “Straight-up savage mode.”
The Tigers, trailing by six, took possession at their 25 with 3:25 to go and moved 74 yards over the next 13 plays, converting a big fourth-and-10 along the way. On third-and-goal at the UF 1, fullback D.J. Moore was stopped for no gain with 25 seconds left, with the Tigers calling a timeout.
On fourth down, LSU went with the “power toss,” but Guise, taking a backward pitch and getting a running start, found nothing in the middle of the UF line as he vaulted for the end zone and was met by a combination of Caleb Brantley, Jordan Sherit, Taven Bryan and Marcell Harris.
Not bad, for a bunch of ‘fraidy cats.
“Oh, we were scared, all right. Terrified,” junior cornerback Jalen Tabor said with a straight face. “I guess out of fear, we fought back.”
Part of the arrangement that moved the game to Baton Rouge was LSU agreeing to play the next two games in the series in Gainesville.
It was fun, Tiger Stadium. Thanks for hospitality. See you in 2019.
4) ROLAND’S TEAMS LOVE ATHENS
Top-ranked UF jumped to a commanding lead then withstood a determined (albeit short-lived) rally to capture the program’s seventh national championship with a 4-1 defeat of juggernaut and longtime nemesis Stanford.
Back at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex at the University of Georgia — site of their last run to a team crown — the Gators made quick work of the doubles point, then got dominate wins from senior Kourtney Keegan No. 6 singles and senior Belinda Woolcock at No. 1 to take a 3-0 lead, needing only one win on the remaining four courts to lock things up.
Stanford, though, swung the momentum on three of the courts, including a win on Court 2 and narrowed the margin to 3-1. But it was freshman Ingrid Neel, who had lost her singles matches in the semi- (vs Vanderbilt) and quarterfinals (Oklahoma State), who provided the heroics. She rallied from a set down against Taylor Davidson and after losing two straight games in the third set stormed to take the final three and win her match 5-7, 6-3, 6-2 and set off the celebration.
For Coach Roland Thornqvist, it marked a fourth national championship in his 16 seasons with the Gators and the program’s first since defeating UCLA in the 2012 finals in Athens.
The moment Davidson’s return went wide, Florida became one of only four schools in the country with at least one national team championship in each of the last nine seasons — and with 16 since 2008-09.
No. 17 and 18 were coming.
— NCAA Track & Field (@NCAATrackField) June 10, 2017
No program — any sport, anywhere — has won more national championships than the Florida men’s track team in the last seven years. Seven national titles since 2010, including the NCAA outdoor crown the Gators claimed in Eugene, Ore., in June. Take a bow, Coach Mike “Mouse” Holloway (if your back can take it after lifting all those trophies).
Eric Futch won his second straight individual title in the 400-meter hurdles and did so by just one-hundredth of a second. KeAndre Bates swept both the long and triple jump competitions, while Grant Holloway was UF’s do-it-all scorer in winning the 110 hurdles, placing second in the long jump and anchoring the 4×400 relay team that clinched the team title in the meet’s final event.
Not to be overlooked, however, were the contributions of Andres Arroyo and Jhonny Victor. Arroyo was not projected to score in the 800 meters, but finished fifth to grab the accompanying four points. Victor was the lowest seeded competitor in the high jump, yet tied for seventh, good for 1 1/2 points. The Gators needed all of them to hold off Texas A&M and raise yet another piece of hardware.
6) WOMEN’S GOLF CLASS OF SEC
Heading into the final round of the SEC Championships in Birmingham, Ala., the Gators had a five-stroke lead on second-place Georgia. A nice cushion, but hardly insurmountable, which was why Coach Emily Glaser wanted her team to play that last round like it was the first; like it was fighting for a lead, not protecting one.
And the Gators did.
A few early birdies rocketed UF to an even larger lead and the Gators took off to win their first conference title since 2008 — shooting a record 22-under, no less, and winning by a fat 13-stroke margin — and the first under the direction of Glaser, who clearly has the program headed in the right direction.
It was an especially satisfying finish after what happened in 2016, when Florida went into the final round in a first-place tie with Alabama, only to lose by five strokes. This time, the Gators’ all-around depth — Maria Torres, Karolina Vlckova, Kelly Grassel, Taylor Tomlinson — not only prevailed, but excelled when it mattered most.
7) EPIC MARATHON IN OKC
It was the most riveting and compelling loss by a UF team all year. Maybe in several years.
And 1.68 million likely agreed.
Those were the viewership numbers pulled in by ESPN the night of June 5 (and morning of June 6) when Florida and Oklahoma traded punches for 17 innings in the Women’s College World Series before the Sooners escaped with a 7-5 victory in Game 1 of the championship final on their way to a sweep of the two-game series.
17 innings. Five hours 28 minutes. Longest #WCWS finals game EVER.
— NCAA Softball (@NCAAsoftball) June 6, 2017
The game featured 122 at-bats, 496 pitches and lasted five hours, 28 minutes. Three times, the Gators were down to their last strike. The first time came in the bottom of the seventh inning, but Sophia Reynoso’s bloop double tied the game. The second time was in the 12th, down two, when Amanda Lorenz clubbed a two-run double into the left-field gap.
Both Kelly Barnhill and Delanie Gourley emptied their tanks in the circle, but eventually it was OU’s Shay Knighten who tagged Barnhill for a three-run homer in the 17th and ended the longest game in WCWS history, one that was watched by more fans than 200-plus nationally televised football games played by Power Five conference teams last fall.
It was just another phenomenal season turned in by Coach Tim Walton, who won the SEC regular season title and has averaged nearly 56 wins in Walton’s 12 seasons, been to the WCWS eight times, the NCAA finals five times and captured two national championships.
8) KENTUCKY BLOWOUT
The day began with a visit from the ESPN “Game Day” crew. The evening’s festivities tipped with more than 11,000 fans screaming as animated 3D alligators nipped at the heels of John Calipari.
Ultimately, it all ended with the biggest blowout of a Kentucky basketball team in the history of its series against the Gators, an 88-66 trouncing of the No. 8 Wildcats that represented their storied program’s most lopsided conference defeat as a Top 10 team in 25 years.
Senior point guard Kasey Hill scored a career-high 21 points and dished six assists. Junior forward Devin Robinson had 16 points and nine rebounds. Chiozza, just two days removed from UF’s first triple-double in eight years, had nine rebounds and nine assists. The Gators shot 67 percent in the second half and utterly stifled a UK squad that was averaging 91.3 points per game coming in.
From the spectacular court projection (take a bow, Alicia Longworth and the UAA Innovation Committee) to the spectacular UF play on the court, it was a near-perfect night of basketball and the first signature SEC victory of Coach Mike White‘s two seasons.
9) CHALK UP ANOTHER
Alex Holston When the UF volleyball team swept Arkansas on the road in its regular-season finale, Coach Mary Wise‘s youthful 2016 bunch clinched a piece of the program’s 22nd SEC title. That total tied for the 10th-most championships in the conference in any sport, regardless of gender, as well as the fourth-most by any team, regardless of sport or gender, since 1979, the first year the league crowned a volleyball champ.
And the Gators did it with just one senior, albeit a good one, in Alex Holston. All Holston did that night was bang a season-high 24 kills, tying Jenny Manz’s 22-year record for the most by a UF player in a three-set match.
10) NEW O’DOME ERA
After a $64.5 million gutting and renovation that was turned around on time and in a startling nine months, the Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center lifted the curtain on its grand opening Dec. 21, with the UF men’s basketball team obliging the moment by nailing 16 of 31 shots from the 3-point line in routing Arkansas-Little Rock.
Soon after, the redone dome — for years, crying for a major facelift — welcomed women’s basketball and gymnastics, and will say hello to volleyball for the first time this fall after those Gators spent last fall’s home season crammed into the friendly confines of their Lemerand Center practice facility.
Chairback seating throughout the arena, a center-hung scoreboard and video screen, plus sparkling new amenities through the building — rest rooms, locker rooms and a gorgeous main entrance — have given the Gators one of the nicest home facilities in the SEC.