Posted May 9, 2014 1:20 PM
It's an early February Southeastern Conference game at Tennessee, and Florida, riding a 15-game winning streak, is locked in a struggle with the Vols, who trail 61-55 with 1:34 to play. With two seconds on the shot clock, the Gators' senior power forward Patric Young launches a jump shot from just inside the free-throw line, and that sets in motion the hustle player of the year in college basketball.
Young's shot misses. Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes, built like a pick-up truck and with meat hooks for hands, collides with Florida's Dorian Finney-Smith as they try to claim the rebound, but the ball slips away, headed out of bounds. Young breaks into a sprint in hot pursuit, but seeing he's not going to catch up to the ball in time, he dives, extending his 6-foot-9, 260-pound frame between a gauntlet of players that includes Stokes, the Vols' Antonio Barton and Finney-Smith.
In one motion, Young snatches the loose ball, falls to the floor, rises just high enough to free his right arm and fires a pass to the perimeter, where Florida point guard Kasey Hill makes the catch and resets a play. The Gators win 67-58 and go on to become the first team in SEC history to go undefeated through an 18-game conference season.
Tennessee fans, ESPN announcers and players from both teams were stunned at what they had just witnessed. The play might not have determined the outcome, or otherwise affected what was yet another great season of Florida basketball under coach Billy Donovan. But it epitomized what Patric Young is all about, presenting his four-year career in microcosm.
Young's play also gave Kentucky coach John Calipari a teaching opportunity for his young but talented team that was struggling to find its way in February.
"What are you willing to do to win a game?" Cal asked his players after showing them a tape of Young's dive and ditch. "I know what he's willing to do to win a game. I saw it. Now you look at it."
It took a while for that lesson to stick, but by March, the Wildcats were making their own hustle plays. Young helped lead his own team to the Final Four, and maybe he had a small hand in Kentucky's appearance there, too.
To hear Young describe the play, it was equal parts conscious and unconscious, a blend of savvy and instinct.
"I was just in the moment," said Young during a break from training as he prepares for workouts with NBA teams leading up to next month's draft. "I saw the ball coming off the rim and reacted. My first reaction was to sprint and dive. And I don't know how to explain it, but my brain remembered that I had [teammates] back there if I threw the ball.
"When I did that, I just knew that we'd won the game."
The Save put a fitting stamp on Young's career. He started as a five-star freshman that was expected to stay a year and bolt for the NBA. But he wasn't ready after one year. NBA scouts knew that, but to his credit, so did Young. And after each of his next two seasons, Young had the same feeling, that he still had much to learn, despite the stigma staying in school might have placed on him.
Young, a two-time SEC Scholar-Athlete of the year, is a deep thinker who enjoyed college life. He learned as much in the classroom as he did on the court, and by staying all four years, he earned his degree and might have also figured out how to make an NBA roster and stay on it for a while.
"I think the biggest thing with Patric where I've seen growth has been his consistency with his work habits, his attitude, and his resiliency to fight through when things don't go well for him," Donovan said. "He [did] a great job this year in that area, and he's really evolved into a much, much better leader because he's done it by example rather than by talking about it."
Young had plenty of time to figure out his place in the game. He's never going to be a team's No. 1 scoring option, or its second, third or fourth option, for that matter. Young has prepared himself for more blue-collar pursuits.
"Four men like me are kind of rare in the sense that I can guard a five or a four," Young said. "And for a possession or two, if I get switched out on a guard, I can guard them as well."
Young's offensive game improved during his time at Florida, and he plans to show off his improved face-up skills during the run-up to the Draft. He'll no doubt interview well, too; there were few better quotes in the college game, and his character is impeccable. But Young hopes his reputation has preceded him, and that The Save speaks volumes as a calling card.
"I believe a play like that shows people that that guy really wants to win. If you didn't know who I was, and you were just some random fan who happened to watch that game, you'd say that guy really wants to win; he lays it on the line, plays for his team.
"Looking back on it, that play probably does epitomize my career. I easily could have been a guy taking 15-20 shots a game, scoring all these points. I just accepted the role that would put my team in the best position to win. On the next level, I know it's a little bit different, but I hope I can carry that over, being a team guy, somebody that other guys can rely on."
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