By Bill Nichols The Dallas Morning News
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Florida Gators are no longer known as the team that lost three straight Elite Eights.
They used those experiences to earn a trip to the Final Four with a 62-52 victory over Dayton on Saturday at the FedEx Forum.
And that experience will be even more valuable at AT&T Stadium in Arlington with the pressure at its highest.
There seems to be no shaking the No. 1 overall seed. Their four senior starters are determined to turn their previous tournament frustrations into celebration.
“Our goal at the beginning of the year was not to be South Regional champions,” senior center Patric Young said. “Our goal was to be national champions.”
Young was a force on both ends of the court, with 12 points, six rebounds, four blocks and two steals.
The Gators (36-2) have won 30 straight games. They hardly flinched against the 11th-seeded Flyers (26-11).
Florida’s seniors figured heavily into the victory, as usual.
Guard Scottie Wilbekin (23 points) epitomized the Gators’ quiet confidence near the end of the first half when he dribbled out most of the clock before knocking down a 3-pointer. He turned and jogged straight off the court and into the tunnel, slapping hands with fans.
That shot gave Florida a 38-24 lead. It also made a big statement that Wilbekin was eager to make. As coach Billy Donovan called a final play, Wilbekin volunteered to do all the work.
“I trust Scottie enough to put him in those situations,” Donovan said. “He felt more comfortable just with the floor spaced, to not bring help to the basketball.”
Donovan has talked about how this team is different. The teams that lost three straight region finals lost significant pieces. Adjustments were made.
The Gators also differentiated themselves from previous teams with their 36-2 record. The 2007 national champion Gators won 35.
“In a lot of ways, outside the Michigan game, we were close to being in three out of four Final Fours right now, and that says a lot about these guys,” Donovan said. “But I think those experiences maybe helped us be a better team this year than maybe we would have if we’d have gotten to a couple earlier.”
The Gators will play either Connecticut or Michigan State in the national semifinal.
Although they cut down the nets at the Forum, the Gators muted their celebration a bit.
“There’s more hunger within us, within this whole team to keep going,” Young said.
Dayton was trying to become only the fourth No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four. But after victories over Ohio State, Syracuse and Stanford, the magical run ended with the Flyers’ worst scoring outing this season.
Dayton coach Archie Miller ran out of things to throw at the Gators, with 11 Flyers playing at least five minutes.
Miller seemed surprised his team managed to stay within 10 points.
“That’s a very, very good team,” he said. “To be on the same floor with them, to be able to compete with them, was really a big-time feeling for everyone in our program.”
The Gators outrebounded Dayton, 37-26, and were 21-of-28 from the foul line. The Flyers had only eight free throws, making six.
There is no stat to measure the significance of experience.
“It’s great for those guys that they stayed the course and saw the bigger picture rather than wanting immediate success,” Donovan said of his seniors. “They are better players today by going through what they went through. If it would have been easier, I don’t think they’d be quite as good.”