NCAA tournament: Florida finally gets over the hump in Elite Eight, beats Dayton for Final Four berth

When the demons had been banished and Cinderella had been put away, everyone on the Florida men’s basketball team started to hug. Gators center Patric Young grabbed his head in wonder and fellow senior Will Yeguete rode him like a horse. The stage came out and the ladders went up and the South Region championship hats were passed out. At midcourt, the players danced and sang. Even the mascot clutched its snout with both claws, like he couldn’t believe Florida was finally going back to the Final Four.

The Gators had arrived here losers in three straight region finals, to Butler in 2011, Louisville in 2012 and Michigan in 2013. Each one stung a little more for the crop of current seniors, though they insisted it meant nothing, that history had been forgotten. But really, amid all the reminders from reporters, how could it?

“It feels like this is where we’re supposed to be,” Young said Saturday night, still holding the South Region trophy after top-seeded Florida’s 62-52 victory over No. 11 Dayton. “It just felt right.”

This was exactly what Scottie Wilbekin, Florida’s point guard who was named South Region most outstanding player, envisioned as winter began. He and three fellow senior starters had spent years developing under Coach Billy Donovan, erecting a foundation but falling short in the biggest moments. Later, with one strip of net still dangling before his face, Wilbekin walked into a locker room thumping in celebration. Music was playing. Teammates were freestyle rapping. So Wilbekin, he of the end-game heroics all season long and a game-high 23 points against the Flyers, stepped into the middle and began to dance.

Just before halftime, with Dayton still counter-punching despite a deficit that bordered on double digits, Wilbekin sank a deep three-pointer that beat the buzzer. As the shot kissed the net, he whipped around and started running into the tunnel, palms open and arms raised, as if to tell the army of Flyers supporters who invaded Memphis this weekend, “It’s over.”

In effect, it was. By intermission, the Flyers were behind 38-24, shooting 25 percent on two-pointers, its miracle run on life support. Dayton (26-11) was seeking to follow VCU in 2011 and George Mason in 2006 — the past two No. 11 seeds to reach the Elite Eight — into the Final Four, and beating Ohio State, Syracuse and Stanford was one thing. But to challenge Florida (36-2), the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed? In the moment, that seemed impossible, no matter the tremendous depth of its 11-man rotation or the amount of spunk its players could summon.

“Coming from where we’ve been, to where we are now, it’s unbelievable,” Flyers center Matt Kavanaugh said inside a tearful locker room, reconciling heartbreak with the success of their deepest NCAA tournament run in three decades.

Dayton hung around, making two three-pointers from the same spot — in the left corner, right in front of its bench — that cut Florida’s lead to eight and forced an early second-half timeout by Donovan. They continued to fight, getting nine straight points from forward Dyshawn Pierre (team-high 18 points) as the minutes ticked down.

But all their pluck could not overcome the Gators, not when Wilbekin could bank floaters while practically parallel to the court, the burly Young (12 points) could seal off Dayton’s front court for easy layups and, in a critical two-possession sequence that chewed up time, when the Gators snagged six offensive rebounds. Before long, the party had begun.

Amid the frenzy, forward Casey Prather, another Florida senior reveling in his first Final Four berth, searched for his family. He was at a loss for words but wanted to share the moment with them. Eventually, he weaved through the sea of cameras and located them, behind the Gators bench. Then he found the right words, too.

“We finally did it,” he told his family. “We finally made it.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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