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March 29, 2014
Notebook: Gators advance to the Final Four
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- True Grit.
Florida -- FINALLY -- secured a bid to the Final Four, crashing Dayton's Cinderella story 62-52 at the FedEx Forum on Saturday night.
The Gators exercised the demons of Butler, Louisville and Michigan, advancing past the Elite Eight for the first time since 2007.
Florida's offense looked as bad as its football counterparts for much of the second half, but senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin donned his Superman cape and UF flaunted its superior strength inside.
UF made just five baskets after halftime, but it overwhelmed Dayton on the offensive glass and drilled free throws to bleed the game away.
"We didn't win pretty tonight," UF coach Billy Donovan said. "We won where we got some stops late. We got to the free-throw line and we made free throws and we offensive rebounded. ... I thought it was the difference in the game."
Wilbekin scored a game-high 23 points, including a ridiculous buzzer-beating 3-pointer before halftime to give the Gators a 14-point lead.
But Dayton refused to go away.
The Flyers stormed back into the game yet after they chipped away at Florida's lead, the Gators pulled away with a dominating defensive effort.
"It wasn't pretty, but we stuck with it," said senior center Patric Young. "We faced rock bottom, but we bounced back."
The Gators outscored the Flyers 13-1 on second-chance points, as they controlled the offensive glass (12 rebounds) and denied Dayton around the rim.
In the end, destiny defeated demons, as Florida erased the ghosts of season's past.
"We faced so many challenges, adversity and doubts, people not believing in us, that we're not good enough we don't have an enough talent, but we've weathered every storm that's come at us," Young said. "We've stuck through it and look, Coach Donovan is cutting down the net right now."
But these Gators aren't satisfied yet.
"There's more hunger within us," Young said. "The whole team wants to keep going."
Young bounced back from a poor performance against UCLA in the Sweet 16, dominating the paint against Dayton's undersized frontcourt.
Young tallied as many fouls (4) as points (4) versus the Bruins, but UF's shredded center flexed his muscles Saturday night, scoring 12 points (5-of-9), grabbing six rebounds, blocking four shots all while playing phenomenal post defense.
"It's funny, when I started the game off strong one of our assistants told me, ' Welcome Back,'" Young said. "Last game I wasn't really here. When that final buzzer rang, I was just in disbelief. It still hasn't hit me yet that we're in the Final Four."
Young "flushed" his forgettable Friday night, responding to adversity as the Gators have all season.
According to ESPN Stats Inc., Florida outscored Dayton by 20 points with Young on the floor.
Wilbekin was honored as the South Regional Most Outstanding Player.
In four tournament games, UF's senior point guard tallied 67 points, 12 assists and just two turnovers.
"I'm happy about the award, but it's nothing compared to winning," Wilbekin said. "Winning just feels so good. I'm just so happy right now that we were able to achieve what we did so far with this group of guys."
Wilkein was also named to the All-Region first team, as was UF sophomore guard Michael Frazier II.
While the Cinderella slipper didn't fit at the end, Dayton did its best to hijack Memphis.
The Flyers, which participated in its first Elite Eight since 1984, filled up the FedEx Forum with a sea of red and blue, chanting "We ARE U-D" throughout out the game.
"We had to earn it," Donovan said.
"We played in the SEC Tournament championship game and it was basically a home game for Kentucky. Coming in here, although I thought we had a really good turnout of Gator fans, clearly there was more Dayton fans in the building."
On Friday, Flyers coach Archie Miller said Dayton's "loyal fan base" deserved to enjoy the team's historic ride.
"We have a spectacular fan base. Spectacular," he said. "When we play, regardless of where we're at -- they show up. Wherever we go, some crazy group of people is going to show up. They're energized. From what I gather, they've pretty much taken over downtown."
The Flyers' regal, raucous fan base rivaled Kentucky's Big Blue Nation, as Dayton loyalists moved its "friendly riot" from Kiefabler Street on campus to Beale Street in Memphis for three days.
Fans turned the popular party block into a celebratory pregame pep rally Saturday, with chants of "LET'S GO FLYERS echoing from Beale Street for hours before tip-off.
"I feel like we have one of the top fan bases in the country," Vee Sanford said Friday. "They always support us, 13,000 every home game, and they're here now."
"I don't understand how people can say that when the majority of the people saying it have never been in the NBA and aren't college scouts or GM's. They aren't fortune tellers of the future. If those guys are fortune-tellers they should be on Wall Street and bet all their money. We play within ourselves. We know the best teams in college basketball are the ones that play together." -- Young, on the perception UF doesn't have any blue-chip, professional-talent players.
THIS & THAT
The Gators advanced to their fifth Final Four in school history. ... Florida 21-of-28 free throws Saturday night. The Gators -- despite ranking No. 280 nationally at the charity stripe (66.3 percent) -- have shot 73.9 percent in four NCAA Tournament games. ... The Gators' 36th win set a program record for most victories in a single season. ... Florida held its opponent under 70 points for the 11 straight game, and 22 of its last 23. Dayton's 52 points was a season-low. ... The Gators have won every 2014 NCAA Tournament game by double digits, the only team to do so. ... Miller played 11 guys, but Donovan matched Dayton's depth by going 10-deep on Florida's bench. Jacob Kurtz made his first appearance in the NCAA Tournament, while DeVon Walker played eight first-half minutes.