MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The season-long focus had been so intense, so all-consuming, that when the horn sounded and the reality hit, Patric Young almost couldn’t comprehend it.
The sculpted Florida center put his hands on his head, smiling in something approaching shock. After three straight agonizing losses in the Elite Eight, Young and his Gators teammates were finally going to the Final Four.
“I was just in disbelief,” Young said. “It still hasn’t hit me that we’re going to be one of the Final Four teams in the country still playing for an opportunity at the championship. … It was kind of weird because I’m so used to walking into my locker room after that final buzzer.”
Not this year. The Gators would take their sweet, victorious time getting to the locker room Saturday after dispatching valiant Dayton, 62-52. There were nets to cut and South region champion hats and shirts to wear.
The ghosts of Butler, Louisville and Michigan had been exorcized. The decisions of four seniors – Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete – to stay in school and stay together through roller-coaster careers had been validated. The steady development over the course of an entire career – flying in the face of the quick-fix culture in college hoops – was proven in the end. They may not have been good enough for the NBA at a younger age, but they are good enough to win 30 in a row.
When the continually roadblocked path to the Final Four had at last been cleared, the joy came pouring out in the immediate aftermath Saturday.
Yeguete hit Young with a blindside bear hug. Point guard Wilbekin halted the realization celebration long enough to herd his teammates through the handshake line with Dayton. The Flyers deserved that respect, having battled their way through the bracket as a No. 11 seed and pushing overall tournament top seed Florida all game.
Only when the handshakes were done did Wilbekin allow himself a moment of indulgence, shaking his head and dancing. Asked what his emotions were at that moment, the regional Most Outstanding Player said, “I can’t really remember exactly, but I’m going to go with happy.”
That would seem appropriate.
The Gators (36-2) won their 30th consecutive game Saturday, a marvelous machine of perfectly integrated parts. They will arrive in North Texas as the likely favorite to win it all, despite the absence of a single sure-fire NBA player in the starting lineup. Billy Donovan’s fourth Final Four squad probably represents his finest coaching job – truly maximizing the talent at his disposal.
“When you get to the Final Four, there’s a public perception that this is some culmination of a mountaintop that you’ve gotten to,” Donovan said. “And I’ve always looked at the tournament as it’s a six-game tournament. That’s what it is.
“We have nice names – Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen and Final Four – but at the end of the day, you want to keep playing. … But I think those experiences (of losing in the regional final) maybe helped us be a better team this year than maybe we would have if we’d gotten to a couple of ones earlier.
“It’s hard to believe what these guys have done. It’s amazing. These guys have been able to, for whatever reason, put stuff behind them.”
That was the Donovan mantra with this team – leave the past in the past. Play in the present. Don’t let last year affect this year. Don’t let last game affect this game. Don’t let last possession affect this possession.
The second half of this game was a perfect embodiment of that laser focus on each play.
The Gators had a 14-point lead, thanks to a dagger 3-pointer by Wilbekin right before the halftime buzzer. Then they came back out and couldn’t make anything.
They scored just five baskets, going the final 6:04 without a field goal. But Dayton could never whittle the lead to less than eight in the second half, because Florida choked the Flyers with defense and crushed them on the glass.
The missed shots didn’t matter. The Gators just kept guarding and kept retrieving their misses, running Dayton out of time and opportunities.
“I think there was an understanding of manufacturing different plays to help you win,” Donovan said. “We didn’t win pretty tonight. We won when we got some stops late. We got to the free-throw line and made free throws, and we offensive rebounded.”
Dayton made just 11 of 30 shots inside the 3-point arc. Young was a human shield at the basket, and Florida had an 11-rebound advantage.
“Once you drove, you had to think pass because you’ve got Patric Young with his big old body there,” said Dayton guard Dyshawn Pierre. “You just had to pass the ball.”
“They play hard, and everything around the basket is difficult,” Flyers coach Archie Miller said. “It’s challenged. … Make no mistake about it, defense wins them games. You can say what you want to say about their entire season. Their defense is there every game, and they’re great on the glass as well.”
Even in the final minute, when the inevitability of elimination set in for Dayton and their large and loud contingent of fans, Florida was completely locked in defensively. The game was over, Miller had subbed out his seniors – and still Wilbekin was guarding with a look on his face like the season could dissolve in defeat at any moment.
Maybe that was leftover anxiety from lost leads against Butler in 2011 and Louisville in ’12. Maybe it was the commitment to every possession and every play. But Florida kept fighting the good fight until that final horn sounded, and their Final Four was finally theirs.
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