MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Cinderella has left this NCAA tournament, while Florida is marching back to the Final Four once again under Billy Donovan.
With a 62-52 win against 11th-seeded Dayton in Saturday’s regional final, the No. 1 overall seed Gators are in the national semifinals for the first time since 2007. Here are three observations from Florida’s 30th straight win.
Midway through the second half, Jordan Sibert was driving to the goal. Next thing he knew, Florida big man Patric Young had him immobile. Young, at 6-9, and 240 pounds, grabbed the ball and wouldn’t let go. Sibert just dangled there.
It didn’t stop with the game in hand. Florida was simply relentless. Asked what he was feeling when the horn sounded, Young went into poetic detail about Final Four disbelief, thankfulness, adversity, etc.
"I can’t really remember exactly," Young said, "but I’m going to go with happy."
Not too happy apparently. The goal isn’t the 30th straight win or even the hardware that sat at the press conference table with Donovan, Scottie Wilbekin and Young.
"Honestly, I think I was happier when we won the SEC tournament (championship)," Young said. "Our goal at the beginning of the year wasn’t to be the south regional champions. Our goal was to be national champions — and just walking up that ladder, I just was probably thinking about how I wanted to do it again."
Wilbekin, the SEC Player of the Year, started the season suspended for the second time in a year. Now, he’s going to the Final Four, but that wasn’t the only hurdle for Florida’s four seniors.
"Obviously, Scottie’s situation is well-documented," Donovan said. "Will Yeguete is dealing with knee injuries. (Casey) Prather thinks he’s a three-point shooter. Then we got him figured out … It’s great for those guys that they stayed the course and saw the bigger picture rather than wanting immediate success."
The bigger picture may have already fallen off the wall without Wilbekin. He scored a game-high 23 points Saturday, 3-of-5 from beyond the arc and 8-of-10 at the line. He had three assists and three steals.
"We’ve all faced countless things that brought us down and brought us to our rock bottom" said Young. "But we all bounced back."
Wilbekin, who had to ice incoming cramps to start the second half, was named the regional’s Most Outstanding Player, but Young’s impact may have been felt more Saturday. He had 12 points, six rebounds and four blocks, wreaking havoc on any inside game Dayton hoped to produce. Even Dayton’s bigs did more kicking out than looking up.
"I do think this," Donovan said. "They’re better players today by going through what they went through. If it would have been easier on them, I don’t think they’d be quite as good. I think the struggle they’ve had to go through has forced them to have perseverance, resiliency, mental and physical toughness to be able to battle and fight."
The Flyers couldn’t score inside, so they went outside. Dyshawn Pierre kicked it out to Devin Oliver for a corner three-pointer to open the second half and an Oliver steal preceded a Pierre three, trimming a 14-point Florida lead to eight.
But they couldn’t keep that up. Down nine, center Matt Kavanaugh, who had only six points, passed up a shot inside shot to kick it out to Oliver. He missed from that spot and Patric Young scored inside to extend Florida’s lead to 11 with 16:33 left in the game.
The Flyers finished with 18 points in the paint. Florida had 24, but variance lay on the glass and on the ensuing free throw line. Florida went to the line 28 times, with 21 makes. Dayton made six of the eight it shot.
"I thought the game was won by our offensive rebounding , by our free throw shooting, and that was really I think the story of the game," Donovan said.
In front of a very loud and very pro-Dayton crowd at FedExForum, the long-ball happy Flyers hit their three-pointers, four in each half, and shot 44.4 percent (8 of 18). They cut a 17-point lead to eight on three occasions, but Florida combated by banging the boards. On back-to-back possession in the second half, the Gators had six offensive rebounds. They outrebound Dayton 37-26, including 12-5 on the offensive glass.
"They play hard and everything around the basket is difficult," Dayton coach Archie Miller said. "It’s challenging. I thought we missed some that we normally made around the rim. I also thought we had some good looks. They just didn’t go in. But make no mistake about it, defense wins them games."