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The Gators celebrate after defeating Dayton on Saturday night for a berth in the Final Four.

Sunday March 30, 2014In the Moment: In Year Four, Gator Seniors Headed to Final Four

The Gators celebrate after defeating Dayton on Saturday night for a berth in the Final Four.

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- As the final seconds ticked away Saturday night, there were hugs, there were high-fives, even some chest bumps. Then came the hats and T-shirts, followed by the trophy, then the ladders, scissors and nets.

Missing, though, was utter jubilation and any emotional release of metaphorical weight being lifted from the shoulders of a certain group of seniors. And a certain coach. 

The Florida Gators are going to the Final Four and that’s a very big deal.

Not the biggest.

“Our goal at the beginning of the year wasn’t to be South Region champions,” senior center Patric Young said. “Our goal was to be national champions.”

Any chance at achieving that ultimate objective, though, required a penultimate one and that came in No. 1-ranked and top-seeded UF’s 62-52 defeat of 11th-seeded Dayton in the South Region title game before 15,443 at FedEx Forum. With the win, an incredible 30th straight, the Gators (36-2) helped ease the pain of those three straight losses in regional finals dating to 2011 and let the winningest senior class in school history extend its postseason to a third weekend.

UF is headed to the Final Four for the fifth time in school history, the fourth time under Coach Billy Donovan and the first time since 2007. For that, the team celebrated, albeit in something of a subdued fashion. As if it was just supposed to happen.

“It feels great,” senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “But we’re not satisfied.”

The Gators use the phrase “chasing greatness,” but they’ll need to wait until to Sunday to see who their next pursuit is against. UF will meet either No. 11 Michigan State (29-8) or 18th-ranked Connecticut (29-8), which handed UF its last loss way back on Dec. 2, in the national semifinals next Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Wilbekin poured in 23 points, equaling his career high, including 11 during a 19-3 run over the final minutes of the first half to open up a lead that kept the Flyers (26-11) playing chase the entire second half against one of the best defenses in the country. Dayton went on to shoot 39.6 percent for the game finish 21 points below its season average of 72.8 points per game, with leading scorer Jordan Sibert scoreless in 30 minutes.

Wilbekin, the team’s leading scorer and best perimeter defender, was named the region’s Most Valuable Player. It’ll look nice alongside his Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and SEC Tournament MVP hardware, but what put a smile on the homegrown Gainesville kid’s face afterward was knowing he had another week alongside a very special group of players and coaches.

“The struggles that we went through this year have just made it that much more fun and brought us that much closer together,” Wilbekin said after going 6-for-14 from the floor, 3-for-5 from the 3-point line, 8-for-10 from the free-throw stripe, and pitching in three assists, three steals and without a turnover. “I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had in my life right now.”

Now, compare that to the questions this team was answering three years ago after blowing an 11-point lead in the final seven minutes of regulation in an Elite Eight overtime loss to Butler; or two years ago in blowing a nine-point lead with eight minutes to go in an Elite Eight loss to Louisville; or last year when the Gators were just plain blown out from the opening tip in a 20-point Elite Eight loss to Michigan.

All four seniors were there, together, to share in the heartache.

Now throw in the suspensions to start the season for Wilbekin (five games) and reserve forward Dorian Finney-Smith (two), some injuries here and there, and the external pressures that mounted with the longest winning streak in school history and unprecedented run of an undefeated mark in 21 games against SEC competition.

Getting here was hard. But it's supposed to be.

“They’re better players today by going through what they went through,” Donovan said after improving to 35-11 in NCAA play for his career, a winning percentage of .761. “If it would have been easier for them, I don’t think they’d be quite as good. The struggles they’ve had to go through have forced them to have perseverance, resiliency, mental and physical toughness, and the ability to battle and fight.”

Donovan told the Gators to expect the best version of the Flyers, a team that ousted three straight higher seeds in Ohio State (sixth), Syracuse (third) and Stanford (10th) to reach its first Elite Eight since 1984.

Dayton fell behind 17-10 early, missing its first four shots from 3-point range, only to make its next four during an 11-2 blitz that had the Flyers in front 21-19 and underdog-pulling crowd jacked up. Forward Devin Oliver (12 points) had three of those treys.

A couple free throws from Wilbekin and a driving, in-traffic layup from Michael Frazier II (10 points) got the Gators back in front until forward Kendall Pollard tied the game on a drive to the basket. One free throw by Finney-Smith had UF up 24-23 with 4:22 remaining.

Then came the Florida freight train, with Wilbekin doing the high-balling.

First he hit 10-foot jumper as the shot clock was about to expire. Next he stole a pass and went coast-to-coast for a layup. Then he fed Frazier for a 3-pointer that forced Dayton coach Archie Miller to take a timeout.

No use.

"Make no mistake about it, defense wins them games," Miller said. "You can say what you want to say about their entire season, but their defense was there every game."

Senior forward Will Yeguete (4 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists) stuck back an offensive rebound, then Wilbekin answered Vee Sanford’s one free throw with two of his own. But he saved his best play of the half for last.

Frazier missed a 3-pointer at the 35-second mark that Finney-Smith rebounded and kicked to Wilbekin for a wide open look at another 3. Wilbekin thought about it, sized up a shot, but opted to back out and opted to wind down the clock. Wilbekin dribbled above the top of the key and with two second left rose up and let fly a 3-ball right in Sanford’s face that swished through at the horn and sent the Gators to the locker room up 38-24.

“It was a big shot and it gave us a bigger lead, but I don’t think it demoralized them at all,” Wilbekin said. “They came out in the second half ready to play.”

Back-to-back 3s ready. Six quick points instantly into UF’s lead and brought the crowd back in the game.

“We knew they weren't going to just lay down,” said Finney-Smith, who came off the bench and grabbed a team-high nine rebounds, six on the offensive glass. “Whenever they made a run, we just said, ‘Stay together! Stay together!’ That’s what we’ve been doing all year.”

Why should it be any different with the Final Four in the balance?

The Flyers closed the gap to eight, but another Gators blitz took it back out to 17 with 11:25 to go. Dayton kept coming and coming, cutting the margin back to eight, with forward Dyshawn Pierre (18 points) doing some work inside with nine straight points. With 6:01 to go, though, Wilbekin sank a 3-pointer, then over the next three UF possessions the Gators grabbed seven offensive rebounds that helped the Gators run clock. Wilbekin hit five of six free throws in the final minute to squash any hope of a Flyers comeback.

“We had to find ways to manufacture offense,” said Donovan, whose team made only five field goals in the second half. “We did it with offensive rebounding and free throws.”

It wasn't sexy or dominant, but the Gators have rarely been about sizzle this year. Just substance.

Thirty wins in a row worth of subsance.

The goal is two more.

“Walking up that ladder, I was probably thinking about how I wanted to do whatever I can to help this team reach that ultimate goal that we set at the beginning of the year ... and just that feeling that has helped me stay humble to know there’s more,” Young said. “There’s a hunger within us, with this whole team, to keep going.”

Another week for this group to be together.

"This isn't a team, it's a family," Finney-Smith said. "I feel like I'm playing with my brothers."

Now, that's something to celebrate.


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