MEMPHIS, Tenn. >> Out beyond the 3-point line Scottie Wilbekin waited. With the clock melting and pressure mounting, he dribbled away the final seconds of the first half, holding the ball for one final shot that will be remembered by Florida fans for years.
His coach, Billy Donovan, wanted a high pick-and-roll for his star player, a screen to free him up on his way to the basket. But Wilbekin saw otherwise and instead called for a flat four set with his teammates spread along the baseline. He waved forward Dorian Finney-Smith out of the paint and into position, giving the illusion of an isolation drive. But then the senior from Gainesville, pulled up for a 3-pointer from the top of the key. The ball swished through as time expired, and suddenly Florida’s lead had swelled to 14.
"That was actually in my face," Dayton guard Vee Sanford said.
Wilbekin appealed to the crowd with arms raised and Gator chops as he trotted to the tunnel. It was the best player on the best team letting loose in a moment of joy, and there was nothing Dayton or his previous 29 opponents could do about it.
With too much Wilbekin, too much muscle and too much timely offensive rebounding, the Gators, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, punch their ticket to the Final Four with a 62-52 win over 11th-seeded Dayton on Saturday night. Florida validated a stupendous regular season in what was essentially a road game inside FedExForum, getting over the hump to reach the national semifinals after stalling out in the Elite Eight the previous three seasons.
"It’s hard to believe what these guys have done," Donovan said. "It’s amazing."
This win, Florida’s 30th in a row, cut short the storybook run for Dayton that began in Buffalo, N.Y., and kept rolling all the way to the precipice of the Final Four. Upsets of No. 6 Ohio State, No. 3 Syracuse and No. 10 Stanford turned Memphis into Dayton South, with swaths of fans making the 500-plus-mile drive.
Wilbekin and his running mates, though, had other ideas. A nip-and-tuck opening half was blown open with a 19-3 run in the final 6:58, punctuated by a cold-blooded 3-pointer from the team’s star player. It sent the Florida cheering section into a frenzy as the remainder of the 15,443 in attendance merely sulked.
But facing a double-digit deficit and the possible end to a terrific season, Dayton emerged from the locker room like a fighter behind on the scorecard. The Flyers swung for the fences, and back-to-back 3-pointers in 36 seconds gave them a punchers’ chance; the lead was trimmed to eight.
But as the Dayton players said repeatedly in a grim locker room after the game, Florida is No. 1 for a reason. The Gators punched right back.
They did it with suffocating defense, forcing Dayton to miss four of its last five 3-point shots. They did it with relentless offensive rebounding, grabbing six in two possessions after the Flyers again cut the lead to 10 with 5:44 remaining. And they did it with Wilbekin, who made four free throws in the final 65 seconds and finished with a game-high 23 points.
"It was really frustrating because we had the opportunity to get the ball and cut the lead down," Sanford said. "But they continued to get the ball and ran the clock down."
And after the clock had run all the way down, after Wilbekin was named the South Regional’s Most Outstanding Player, he climbed the ladder to snip the net with a sheepish smile. Gainesville’s favorite son had taken Florida to the Final Four.