Forgrave: Gators send message — be afraid, be very afraid
Cinderellas sure are fun, aren’t they? They capture hearts with their unexpectedness. They show us anything is possible. They let us hope and believe in an age when optimism is rare.
But let’s be honest: Unless you’re from that corner of Ohio, you didn’t really want the Cinderella story of the 11th-seeded Dayton Flyers to continue into the Final Four.
You wanted the team that barely made it into the NCAA Tournament to lose a hotly contested game to Florida, the No. 1 overall seed, and put the glass slipper back into the closet before it crashed our Final Four.
If that’s what you wanted — a Final Four that includes the team that five months of basketball have proved to be the finest team around — congratulations, you got it.
Florida played every bit the role of No. 1 overall seed on Saturday night, when the Gators won their 30th straight game by dominating the boards, penetrating Dayton’s defense and being what they’ve been all year, the most aggressive blueblood team in the nation.
Get this: Dayton is 17-2 this season when it shot higher than its season average of 37.5 percent from 3-point range. Dayton shot an impressive 44 percent from 3 on Saturday, yet Florida beat the Flyers 62-52.
Or this: Florida held Dayton to its lowest-scoring game of the season, 21 points below its season average.
Or this: Florida had seven more offensive rebounds, which led to 12 more second-chance points than Dayton, and got to the free-throw line 20 more times than Dayton did, a surefire sign of an aggressive offense.
All this in 40 minutes in which the Flyers — who beat three talented teams to get to the Elite Eight — played a pesky, never-say-die game.
“It’s hard to believe what these guys have done,” Florida head coach Billy Donovan said of his team. “It’s amazing. These guys have been able to, for whatever reason, put stuff behind them … They’re so far removed from the fact of how many games they’ve won in a row. All they know is, if they don’t play to the very best of their ability and they’re outperformed or outplayed, they’re going home.”
For the first time in four years, Donovan’s men won’t be heading home after an Elite Eight game. And it was because of those four seniors starters.
Scottie Wilbekin played with the otherworldly confidence he always plays with, scoring 23 points, including a gut-punch of a 3 at the horn to end the first half. Senior center Patric Young played like a man possessed, with 12 points, six rebounds, four blocks and two steals.
I spoke with Young on the court moments after he cut down the net to celebrate heading to his first Final Four. His head was in the clouds. He said he’d never felt anything like it.
“I was just in disbelief,” Young said later. “It still hasn’t hit me that we’re going to be one of the Final Four teams in the country still playing for an opportunity at the championship. You always set your goal to make it here, especially last year when we ended in the same position, but we were the other team. It was kind of weird because I’m so used to walking into my locker room after that final buzzer.”
There’s something special about this Florida team. I’m not so sure there’s that team-of-destiny vibe around this squad like Louisville a year ago, or Kentucky the year before. There are no teams of destiny this season, just teams like Florida that have the blue-chip talent to compete with anyone — plus the upperclassmen experience to know how to get it done.
“We can do things with this group because they’re pretty basketball-savvy,” Donovan said. “They’ve got a good IQ. You can make adjustments and changes. There’s different things you can do.
“This group has learned that you’ve got to be able to pull together when it gets tough. That’s what we’ve done a good job of.”
And that might be the scariest thing an opponent could hear — not just a Cinderella opponent that magically appeared in the Elite Eight, but the blueblood opponent that will meet the Gators in the Final Four.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.