Finally Four: UF breaks through to national semifinals
Published: Saturday, March 29, 2014 at 8:15 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 30, 2014 at 6:13 p.m.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — To break through and reach its first Final Four since 2007, Florida needed a dose of senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin early and some muscle on the boards late.
Who: First seed Florida (36-2) vs. Connecticut-Michigan State winner
When: Saturday, April 5
Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Note: The Gators are due to arrive at Gainesville Regional Airport at about 1 a.m. Sunday.
Top-ranked Florida stayed true to its identity in a 62-52 win Saturday over Dayton that exorcised the demons of Elite Eight appearances past. Making its fourth straight Elite Eight appearance before a pro-Dayton crowd of 15,443 at FedEx Forum, Florida showed poise down the stretch by putting up a wall on defense in the final six minutes and grabbing every offensive rebound it could track down when shots didn't fall.
All four of UF's seniors played a big role, either through scoring or rebounding. Wilbekin finished with 23 points, three assists and three steals and shortly after the game was named the South Regional's Most Outstanding Player. Senior center Patric Young added 12 points and six rebounds. Senior forwards Casey Prather and Will Yeguete each had seven rebounds as top-seeded Florida outrebounded the 11th-seeded and undersized Flyers, 37-26.
“I'm not sure these four seniors, having gone through the experiences in the previous three Elite Eights, could have made the next step they made,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
It was about finding ways to make defensive stops when shots weren't falling late. The Gators were just 5-of-21 from the field (23.8 percent) in the second half, but won the game by holding Dayton to a season-low 52 points. Florida also made its free throws in clutch moments, shooting 75 percent (21-of-28) from the foul line.
“I think there was an understanding of manufacturing different plays to win,” Donovan said. “We didn't win pretty tonight. We won where we got some stops late. We got to the free-throw line and we made free throws and we offensive rebounded.”
Dayton (26-11) whittled UF's 17-point second-half lead to eight points when forward Dyshawn Pierre hit a layup with 3:38 left. But up 58-50, Florida grabbed four offensive rebounds in a 1:01 stretch, starting with Yeguete and continuing with Michael Frazier II, Dorian Finney-Smith and Prather. Rather than bleeding more clock, Prather missed a short putback attempt, but Dayton forward Kendall Pollard missed a runner in transition on the other end of the floor. Yeguete was there to grab another big rebound with 2:39 left.
“We weren't going to let them get a second shot,” Yeguete said.
Dayton forward Devin Oliver missed a 3-point attempt with 2:09 left, and after a Wilbekin missed runner in the lane, Florida's defense forced a turnover when Dayton guard Scoochie Smith threw the ball out of bounds with 1:05 left.
Wilbekin made four of his last six free-throw attempts to close out the game. Florida could finally celebrate after having its previous three seasons end in Elite Eight losses against Michigan (79-59), Louisville (72-68) and Butler (71-68, OT).
“It was a rough three years, coming up short, not understanding why we couldn't get there,” Young said.
But Young was able to celebrate with a piece of the net hanging from his Final Four cap.
“It just makes it worthwhile because I feel like we've done it the right way this year,” Young said. “Invested the time in practice, guys have been committed to each other, wanted to know each other better. Our chemistry has been off the charts.”
The Dayton Flyers could have more appropriately been named the Dayton Bombers on Saturday, firing up 3-pointers from all angles in an effort to stay close to the Gators. Dayton finished the game 8-of-18 from the 3-point line and blanketed the 3-point line on defense, limiting Florida to 5-of-15 shooting from beyond the arc.
But ultimately, Dayton couldn't solve a Florida defense that held the Flyers to 39.6 percent from the floor.
“Make no mistake about it, defense wins them games,” Dayton coach Archie Miller said. “You can say what you want to say about their entire season. Their defense is there every game and they're great on the glass as well.”
Florida came out firing, making its first three shots from the floor to take an early 7-2 lead.
But the Gators had some uncharacteristic breakdowns guarding the 3-point line, and Dayton took advantage. With Florida up 19-13, Oliver hit an open 3-pointer when Finney-Smith doubled up the post to cut UF's lead to 19-16. After Pierre hit two free throws, Kyle Smith followed with a 3-pointer to give Dayton a 21-19 lead.
But with the score tied at 23, Wilbekin fueled a strong Florida close to the half. Off a steal on an in-bounds play, Wilbekin went coast-to-coast in transition for a driving layup to put Florida up 26-23.
Wilbekin continued his flurry, scoring 11 points during UF's 15-1 run to close the half. The 6-foot-2 guard from Gainesville scored UF's last five points in the half on a pair of free throws and a 21-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer to put the Gators up 38-24. Wilbekin raised his arms to the crowd as he headed for the tunnel to the locker room at halftime.
“It was a big shot,” Wilbekin said. “It gave us a bigger lead. But I don't think it demoralized them all.”
That's because Dayton hit back-to-back 3-pointers to start the second half, cutting UF's lead to 38-30. But Florida weathered that run and took back control of the game, extending its lead to 53-36 on an inside layup from Young.
“They fought through the whole 40 minutes,” Wilbekin said. “But we did the same.”
As a result, Florida is going to its fifth Final Four appearance in school history and fourth under Donovan, who guided UF to Final Four appearances in 2000, 2006 and 2007. The Gators (36-2) will take a 30-game winning streak into their Final Four matchup against the winner of the East Regional final between Michigan State and Connecticut on Saturday in Arlington, Texas.
“One more championship,” Yeguete said, when asked about the goal of the team going forward. “That's what we came here for. I'm really happy we got it done.”
Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or email@example.com. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.