It took a miraculous 75-foot shot, some stunning November upsets and some nail-biting wins in Southeastern Conference play.
But Florida is back in the NCAA Tournament after a two-season absence. The Gators received a surprisingly high No. 10 seed in the West Region and will face No. 7 seed BYU on Thursday in Oklahoma City, Okla.
"We're very, very excited and grateful for the opportunity," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "I'm more excited for our players having a chance to experience this, for most of them this is something they haven't been through yet. They've worked so hard from day one, and it's great to see them rewarded."
It's been a long road back. After winning the 2007 national title, Florida brought in the nation's top-rated recruiting class and was expected to continue its string of nine straight NCAA Tournament appearances. But the Gators stumbled down the stretch in both the 2008 and 2009 seasons, resulting in back-to-back NIT appearances.
Florida (21-12) will be making its 15th NCAA Tournament appearance in school history and 10th under Donovan.
"It was a stressful 48 hours not knowing if we were in or out," Florida junior forward Chandler Parsons said. "We're really excited to be a part of it. For most of us, it's our first experience with the NCAA Tournament. We just don't want to go and play one game, we want to prove we're deserving of being there."
It won't be easy. BYU (29-5) posted its best record in program history and finished second in the Mountain West Conference with a 13-3 record. The Cougars are led by 6-foot-2 junior shooting guard Jimmer Fredette, who is averaging 21.7 points per game and shooting 44.8 percent from 3-point range. BYU also leads the nation in free-throw shooting percentage at 78.4 percent.
"We'll get to work on BYU right away," Donovan said.
If Florida gets by BYU, it would face the winner of No. 2 seed Kansas State and No. 15 seed North Texas in the second round.
Already, ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale has picked the Gators to upset BYU in the first round.
"The Gators have won 70 games in three years and now they finally have a chance to go back to the NCAA Tournament, and I don't think they're going to let this slip by," said Vitale, a Sarasota native. "I think they're going to respond. I think Billy is a good tournament coach. I look for Florida to beat BYU despite the fact that they can shoot the basketball."
Florida was projected as the second team out of the tournament by ESPN.com bracket guru Joe Lunardi late Saturday night. But Florida's body of work outweighed its play down the stretch.
The Gators lost four of their last five games, including a loss to Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. But the Gators posted big wins in November against Florida State and Michigan State. Also, Florida beat North Carolina State in overtime on a 75-foot shot by Parsons at the buzzer.
Florida went 3-8 against the RPI Top 50 and won nine games against RPI top 100 teams. After the field was set, NCAA Tournament Selection Committee chairman Dan Guerrero told CBS a variety of factors were taken into account in choosing at-large times.
"It's not necessarily about how you finish," Guerrero said. "We looked at non-conference schedules or in some cases playing an unbalanced schedule within your division. Wins against the (RPI) Top 50, Top 100 also come into play."
Teams from the SEC West went 2-28 against the top four teams from the SEC East during the course of the season. All four SEC teams that received bids were from the SEC East (Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida). It's the first time since divisional play began in 1992 that all SEC bids in the NCAA Tournament came from the same division.
Of Florida's players, senior Dan Werner is the only one with NCAA Tournament experience. Werner was a freshman who played sparingly off the bench when Florida won the second of its national titles.
"It's such a great feeling (to be back)," Werner said. "That being said, now we need to turn our focus to BYU and need to come with the right mindset and take full advantage of this opportunity.”
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- On a day freshman-dominated Kentucky was honoring its seniors, sophomore Darius Miller was most responsible for making sure the Wildcats finished their season with a perfect home record.
The No. 3 Wildcats saw a big early lead slip away against Florida, but Miller got most of his 14 points in the clutch to help pull out a 74-66 victory and possibly cement a top seed in the NCAA tournament.
Afterward, Miller warned that these close calls have got to stop with the postseason about to begin.
"That's happened to us a few times this year," Miller said. "We really need to take care of that. It might not work against some other team."
The Wildcats (29-2, 14-2) had already clinched their 44th Southeastern Conference title outright with Vanderbilt's loss to South Carolina on Saturday night. Florida (20-11, 9-7) might need to win a few games in this week's SEC tournament in Nashville, Tenn., to reach the NCAAs.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said he thinks the Gators belong there.
"I'm rooting for them," Calipari said. "They played hard, never quit. They went right at us."
Kentucky's 18-0 home record ties the 1985-86 team for the best in program history. The last time the Wildcats reached 14 league wins was 2005.
Although there were plenty of standouts in this one for the Wildcats, who had five double-digit scorers, Miller made some of the most meaningful baskets, going 5 for 7 from the field, including three 3-pointers. He matched Eric Bledsoe as the game's top scorers.
Miller's third 3 early in the second half stopped a 9-1 run by Florida that had helped cut into a large early deficit.
He credits his more highly touted teammates, who sometimes will draw double-teams and give him better looks.
"Everybody's focusing on them, so that gives me a little space to roam and be aggressive," Miller said.
Kentucky led by as many as 18 late in the first half, but Florida got a slew of uncontested baskets and cut it to 57-54 midway through the second after a 3-pointer by Alex Tyus, who led Florida with 12 points.
The Gators pulled within two when a layup by Vernon Macklin made it 60-58 with seven minutes left. Patrick Patterson answered with a dunk and John Wall followed with a 3 to give the Wildcats some breathing room.
"I think in the first half we certainly dug ourselves a hole," Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
Kentucky never trailed and began to pad the lead midway through the first half when Miller passed up a wide-open 3-pointer but dished it around to Bledsoe, who nailed the long jumper instead. Then, on the next trip down, Miller added his own 3, putting the Wildcats up 16-9.
Kenny Boynton answered for Florida by hitting a 3-pointer in transition.
"There is no moral victory for us," Florida forward Chandler Parsons said. "A loss is a loss. They are the third-best team in the country, and we feel that we can play with anybody on their home court and their hostile environment."
After Tyus hit a fade-away jumper to cut the Kentucky lead to 20-16 midway through the first half, the Gators didn't get a field goal for more than five minutes while the Wildcats pulled away early with a 14-0 run.
Miller had five points in that stretch and Darnell Dodson added one of his two 3-pointers.
However, Bledsoe punctuated the run with the showstopping play of the afternoon -- a reverse layup that he finished with his back to the basket while plummeting out of bounds. That gave the Wildcats their largest early lead at 34-18.
Florida cut the deficit to 41-31 at halftime.
Calipari typically starts three freshmen and one sophomore, but the team's lone seniors, Mark Krebs, Perry Stevenson and Ramon Harris, started and played the first five minutes. Also honored on Senior Day was usual starter Patrick Patterson, a junior who is expected to graduate in three years and will likely enter the NBA Draft.
"I was just trying to hold back the tears," Patterson said. "I just kept looking at the fans, trying to soak it all in."
Wall, a freshman and near-lock for the draft as perhaps the No. 1 overall pick, joined those four in the starting lineup.
Wall finished with 11 points, including back-to-back driving layups in the second half that helped withstand the Florida comeback.
Florida had its chances to finish off a game against another quality opponent and boost its NCAA Tournament hopes.
Instead, the Gators misfired down the stretch in a 64-60 loss to No. 13 Vanderbilt in its regular-season home finale at the O'Connell Center.
For the second straight game, the Gators couldn't make a big shot on their final possession. This time, with Florida down 62-60, freshman Kenny Boynton had an open look for a 3-point attempt with 10 seconds remaining. But Boynton's shot clanged off the rim, and Vanderbilt came up with the rebound.
Vanderbilt point guard Jermaine Beal then hit two free throws with 6.7 seconds left to close out the game.
Despite playing excellent defense in the second half to get back in the game, Florida couldn't overcome shooting 26.7 percent from the floor in the second half. The Gators scored just one point in the final 3:35 to fall to 6-5 in games decided by five points or less.
"I thought we got some phenomenal looks," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "We had Boynton wide open for a 3-pointer and that's about as good as you can ask for. I thought tonight was one of those games where offensively we executed well but the result of the ball going in the basket wasn't what we liked."
After Vanderbilt center A.J. Ogilvy put the Commodores ahead 62-60 on a putback with 2:03 remaining, Florida had two other chances to tie the game. But Boynton missed a short bank shot in the lane and point guard Erving Walker missed a floater in the lane with 51.7 seconds left.
"When you leave your heart out there and you come up short, it's disappointing," Florida junior forward Chandler Parsons said. "Our backs are against the wall now. We're going to see how tough we are."
Florida (20-10, 9-6 Southeastern Conference) dropped to 3-7 against teams in the Top 50 in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI).
Down by as many as 12 points in the first half, Florida rallied to take a 53-48 lead on a pair of Boynton free throws. But the Gators couldn't hold the lead, scoring just one point in the final 3:35.
Freshman guard John Jenkins came up big with back-to-back 3-pointers for Vanderbilt to put the Commodores ahead 60-59 with 3:35 left. Jenkins went 6-for-9 from 3-point range.
"You kind of have to pick your poison," Donovan said. "I wish we had guys that could guard Ogilvy and Beal one-on-one."
Florida junior center Vernon Macklin led the Gators with 21 points. But no other UF player reached double figures. Parsons, coming off a career-high 29-point performance against Georgia, was held to just three points.
"Every time I was coming around off pick and roll, they had a wall of players there to stop me," Parsons said.
Honored before the game on Senior Day, Florida senior Dan Werner put together a gritty effort with 8 points, 5 rebounds and two steals in 23 minutes off the bench. But Werner was involved in a bizarre play down the stretch. After Ogilvy's shot attempt appeared to go awry with 2:03 left, Werner tapped the putback back in his own basket going for the rebound. Ogilvy was bearing down on him on the play.
"Just a freak play," Werner said.
Jenkins led Vanderbilt (23-6, 12-3 SEC) with 18 points. Ogilvy had 16 points and Beal had 13 points and six assists.
Florida came out tight early, missing its first five attempts from the floor. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, made its first four 3-point attempts. Beal and Jenkins hit back-to-back 3-point attempts to give the Commodores an early 20-8 lead.
After a Beal 3-pointer extended Vanderbilt's lead to 38-27 with 2:31 left in the first half, the Gators closed the half on an 8-0 run. Alex Tyus made a jumper and one of two free throws to cut the Vanderbilt lead to 38-30. Shipman then hit a jumper with 53 seconds left to pull Florida within 38-32. After forcing a shot clock violation, point guard Erving Walker found sophomore Ray Shipman open in the corner. Shipman hit his first 3-pointer since Nov. 27, 2009 against Michigan State, cutting the Vanderbilt lead to 38-35 at halftime.
Vanderbilt went 6-of-8 from 3-point range in the first half and 10-of-20 for the game.
Florida, meanwhile, struggled from the perimeter throughout the game. The Gators shot 36.5 percent from the floor and 15.4 percent (2-13) from 3-point range.
"The 3-point line was a huge difference, and when you see a disparity like we had where it was two for us and 10 for them, it really shows how hard our guys battled and fought defensively," Donovan said.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida's first win over Tennessee in three years probably secured the Gators a berth in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007.