MEMPHIS, Tenn. – UF point guard Scottie Wilbekin headed to the free-throw line with a knowing smile on his face, sharing a quick chest bump along the way with Casey Prather.
There were still 37 seconds to go in Saturday’s matchup with the Dayton Flyers. This time, though, nothing was going to keep the Gators from making the next step.
The Gators are headed to the Final Four.
A 62-52 win ended the Flyers’ Cinderella run during the NCAA Tournament and further validated the Gators’ magical season.
The Gators had stumbled to three straight Elite Eight losses, twice seeing large second-half leads slip away. But the winninest senior class in school history made the most of its best and final chance to reach college basketball’s showcase event.
“We’ve been on the other side of it before,” center Patric Young said. “It feels really good not to be on this side because we’ve been close.”
Even though the Gators (36-2) entered Saturday’s matchup a 10-point favorite and riding a 29-game win streak, when the final horn sounded, Young put his hands on his head in shock.
“I was just in disbelief,” he said. “It still hadn’t hit me we would be one of final four teams in the country still playing for an opportunity at the championship.”
Dayton, which finished fifth in the Atlantic-10 Conference, reached the South Regional final by playing with relentless energy and an 11-deep roster that carried the Flyers to upsets of Ohio State, Syracuse and Stanford.
The Flyers (26-11) stuck with the Gators for much of the second half, but after Dayton forward Kendall Pollard tied the game 23-23 with 4:40 left before halftime UF took control.
Once again, Wilbekin led the way.
The 6-foot-2 senior scored 14 of his game-high 23 points during the first half to help the Gators break open a close game. Named the most outstanding player of the South Regional, Wilbekin also finished with three assists, three steals and without a turnover for the second straight game.
The highlight of Wilbekin’s night was his third halftime buzzer-beating 3-pointer of the postseason, joining shots he made against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament and Pittsburgh in the NCAA Tournament round of 32.
The shot capped a 15-1 Gators run. As the buzzer sounded, Wilbekin turned his back to the basket, raised his arms to his side and sprinted toward the locker room, his team ahead 38-24 — UF’s largest halftime lead since the regular-season finale against Kentucky.
“It was a big shot,” Wilbekin, who logged 38 minutes, said. “But they came out of halftime ready to play.”
Dayton returned from the locker room undeterred by Wilbekin’s closing brilliance.
The Flyers quickly drained two 3-pointers to cut the lead to 38-30 and fired up a FedEx Forum crowd of 15,443 featuring a large Dayton contingent. But with “Let’s Go Flyers” chants raining down, Dayton missed its next three 3s and the Gators re-established control by attacking the basket.
Dayton, looking for its first Final Four bid since 1967, had no one to match Young. UF took a 53-36 lead with 11:25 remaining on a layup by the 6-foot-9, 240-pound senior, who finished with 12 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots.
The Gators outscored Dayton by 20 points when Young was on the floor, according ESPN Stats Inc.
But the Flyers had one last run in them.
“They fought through the whole 40 minutes,” Wilbekin said. “But we did the same.”
Sophomore forward Dyshawn Pierre scored four straight baskets, including a 3-pointer. Meanwhile, the Gators’ offense bogged down, too reliant on Wilbekin, and Dayton’s tempo and depth began to take its toll.
“We got a little bogged down in the second half,” Donvoan said. “We didn’t have enough flow in the offense. I will say this: I thought our team got a little worn down, and Dayton had a lot do with that.”
Pierre’s layup with 3:55 to go cut the lead to 58-50, but the Flyers could never get closer.
By game’s end, chants of “It’s Great to Be a Florida Gator” filled the FedEx Forum.
“We had the opportunity for three years, and we finally did it,” Wilbekin said. “It feels good.”
But the Gators are not finished yet.
“As much fun as it is today, there’s more to achieve if we can,” Wilbekin said.
It will not be easy. UF will play the winner between Michigan State and Connecticut on Saturday in at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
UF’s senior class has been through a lot, but the next 10 days will be a new challenge for all of the Gators.
“Our guys have experienced a lot,” Donovan said. “They haven’t experienced what we they are getting ready to experience Saturday.”
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