The last-second buzzer beaters. The unbelievable upsets. Tears rolling down the cheeks of seniors playing their final collegiate game. Yes, drama will unfold this month on the basketball court as March Madness takes center stage. One Lake County resident remembers it all too well. He shares what it’s like to play in the NCAA Tournament and the Final Four.
Story: James Combs // Photos: Courtesy of the University of Florida
The Final Four.
It’s Mecca. It’s Utopia. It’s college basketball’s grandest stage.
As a young boy, Andrew DeClercq dreamed about playing under those bright lights and on that big stage. After all, he witnessed some of the most iconic moments in Final Four history.
He remembers Michael Jordan’s game-winning shot against Georgetown in 1982. He remembers the “Cinderella” Villanova team that took down Goliath Georgetown in 1985. He remembers coach Jim Valvano’s victory lap in 1983 after North Carolina State Wolfpack stunned Houston in the championship game.
Three years after the 6-foot-10-inch power forward from Clearwater Countryside High School signed with the University of Florida, Andrew would have an opportunity to create his own Final Four memories.
As a junior in 1994, he helped lead UF to the school’s first Final Four appearance. Andrew was a reliable scorer and fully capable of snagging any rebound or blocking the shot of players who dared enter his lane. But the individual accomplishments meant little. For him, that season was defined by sharing a special moment with teammates.
“Cutting down those nets with my teammates after we won our game in the Elite Eight was the best feeling in the world. I realized at that moment how all the blood, sweat, and tears were worth it. All that time we spent in the weight room and on the practice floor, and here we were on the floor together after winning the biggest game in UF history and getting ready to play in the Final Four. I’ll never forget that feeling.”
The 44-year-old Andrew has not played competitively since retiring from the NBA in 2005. Today, he lives in Clermont with his wife and three children and is co-founder and executive pastor of HighPoint Church in Ocoee.
Basketball is no longer a big part of his life, but the memories of the Gators’ improbable run to the Final Four will last a lifetime.
A season to remember
The 1993-1994 Florida squad returned several veterans, including Andrew, a junior, Craig Brown, a senior guard, Dan Cross, a junior guard, and Marti Kuisma, a senior forward. The team also featured young budding players such as athletic sophomore forward Brian Thompson and sophomore center Dametri Hill, who developed a signature hook shot that later became known as “Da Meat Hook.”
Andrew and other upperclassmen were determined to take the program to a higher level after coming off two subpar seasons. In 1992, the Gators lost to Virginia in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) Final Four and in 1993 lost to Minnesota in the first round of the NIT.
“Craig Brown and I would gather the freshmen and get in extra workouts. We also went to Australia that summer and played professional teams. That experience was phenomenal for us as a team and served as a great bonding experience for the players. Our goal before the season was to win the Southeastern Conference, make the NCAA Tournament, and advance to the Final Four.”
The Final Four? That’s a big expectation for a program that, at the time, had won a meager three NCAA Tournament games in its history. And when it comes to basketball, Gainesville isn’t exactly Lexington, Westwood, Durham, or Chapel Hill.
Few experts gave Florida much chance to achieve that goal. In fact, the Gators entered the season unranked, and the team was devoid of any sure-fire NBA lottery picks.
None of that mattered to the team. UF featured a scrappy, feisty collection of players who readily bought into coach Lon Kruger’s hard-nosed, tenacious brand of defense.
“Whether we were at practice or in a game, we were a highly competitive team,” Andrew recalled. “Nobody was there for personal glory; we each accepted the roles that coaches had for us. That made playing the game much easier.”
It also made for a successful season. Florida finished the year with a 23-6 record and won the Southeastern Conference’s East Division with a 12-4 conference record. The team’s competiveness earned praise from Arkansas All-American forward Corliss Williamson.
“Florida is like a bunch of gnats. You keep trying to make them go away but they keep coming back. “They also proved to be pests in the NCAA Tournament after knocking off Pennsylvania and James Madison in the first and second rounds.
“One thing I realized after those two victories is that the intensity level of each game in the NCAA Tournament is so much higher than in the regular season,” Andrew said. “We looked at the NCAA Tournament games as an opportunity to prove who we were as a team, and we knew we had to play at the highest level possible.”
The first- and second-round victories set up a marquee showdown with two-seeded Connecticut at the Sweet 16 in Miami. The Huskies featured two All-American players in Donyell Marshall and Ray Allen. It was also a matchup of two contrasting styles. UConn was a fast-paced team, averaging 84.9 points per game. Florida played a more half-court-oriented, grind-it-out style.
“Going into that game, people wondered how we would deal with all their firepower. However, throughout the course of that season, we managed to slow down teams like Kentucky, Arkansas, and Louisville. We turned the UConn game into a half-court, possession-by-possession game.”
The strategy took the Huskies out of their comfort zone and helped Florida pull off a 69-60 upset.
Two days later, the Gators achieved their improbable dream of making the Final Four by defeating Boston College 74-66 in the Elite Eight.
“I remember when there was about five or six seconds left on the clock and I started getting goose bumps,” Andrew said. “It dawned on me that we were actually going to the Final Four. The locker room was absolute chaos. We were screaming, hugging, high-fiving. All the long hours of hard work and sweat helped us meet our goal. It was an amazing feeling.”
When the team arrived at the Gainesville Airport at 2am, more than 2,000 Gator fans donning orange and blue attire greeted them.
Final Four week
Suddenly, football was no longer the only game in town. The University of Florida campus was abuzz with excitement. Signs were prominently displayed on dorms, buildings, and storefronts. Many of them read “Go Gators!” or “Final Four bound!”
Andrew and his teammates could not walk across campus without being congratulated or high-fived by students.
“We went from being a nobody to being a somebody overnight,” he recalls.
In one of Andrew’s classes, a student successfully convinced a professor to postpone an exam scheduled for the following Monday because Gator Nation would be too busy watching the Final Four.
“The student then asked the professor if the entire class would receive an A if we won the Final Four. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Whoa, I don’t want that kind of pressure!’”
The team received just as much attention when they arrived at the Final Four in Charlotte, North Caroline. In fact, it became a balancing act as the Gators focused on winning the game while soaking in the excitement of college basketball’s grandest stage.
Public practices were held at the Charlotte Coliseum in front of 15,000 fans. Then it was off to photo shoots and visiting with throngs of media.
“The atmosphere surrounding the Final Four is unbelievable,” Andrew said. “We’d be walking around Charlotte and fans would converge around us and ask us questions. I was in awe of the surroundings, and I can honestly say I’ve never done so many interviews and photo shoots in my life.”
Their semifinal opponent was Duke, a traditional college basketball powerhouse that had advanced to seven Final Fours in the past nine seasons and won back-to-back championships in 1991 and 1992. The Blue Devils featured versatile All-American Grant Hill, who averaged 17.4 points per game.
Relying on its suffocating defense, the Gators stymied Duke’s offense and built a 13-point lead with 15 minutes left in the second half. That’s when Hill took his game to another level, hitting three consecutive 3-pointers.
“We watched lots of video on Duke and never once did we see Grant Hill shoot three pointers. That caught us off guard. But that’s why he was an All-American. When his team desperately needed him, he put the team on his back.”
The remainder of the game was back and forth. In the end, the Blue Devils pulled off a hard-fought 70-65 victory.
“That game was a war. Afterward, we were exhausted as exhausted gets. We put everything we had into that game.”
Years later, Andrew and Hill played together for the Orlando Magic. They reminisced about that Final Four game.
“Grant Hill played in three Final Fours, and he told me that the game he played against us was the most difficult. He said that he never felt comfortable about Duke winning until the final horn sounded.”
Andrew spent 10 years in the NBA, playing for teams such as Boston, Golden State, Cleveland, and Orlando. Still, that memorable run to the Final Four ranks as one of his career highlights.
“I never got that close to a championship again. We had a great group of coaches and a great group of players. To live the dream of playing in the Final Four was amazing.”