MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — First yet again this season, the Florida Gators want more. Much more.
Try a national championship.
Scottie Wilbekin scored 23 points and Florida became the first team to advance to the Final Four with a 62-52 win Saturday night over the 11th-seeded Dayton Flyers in the South Region final.
The Gators reached their fifth Final Four after losing at this point in each of the past three NCAA tournaments. This time, they came in as the country’s top-ranked team and the overall No. 1 seed.
Florida won its 30th straight game and improved to 36-2, topping the 35 wins by the 2007 national championship squad.
“I couldn’t be prouder and happier,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said after being drenched with water in the Gators’ locker room.
“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. 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 of ones earlier.”
Patric Young scored 12 points, and Michael Frazier II added 10 for Florida. The Gators will play either UConn or Michigan State in Arlington, Texas, in the national semifinal.
The celebration was a bit muted because a regional title isn’t the Gators’ end goal.
“There’s more hunger within us, within this whole team to keep going,” Young said.
Dyshawn Pierre led the Flyers with 18 points, including the final 11 for Dayton (26-11). Devin Oliver added 12 points.
Dayton came in trying to become only the fourth 11 seed to advance to the Final Four. The Flyers had upset Ohio State and Syracuse in reaching their first regional final since 1984. They missed their second Final Four and first since 1967 as Florida held them to their lowest scoring game this season.
Coach Archie Miller complimented the Gators, saying that just being on the floor with Florida gave Dayton a “big-time feeling.”
“It’s always hard to lose the last game of the season, but in the back of my mind, I’m not sure a team in the nation captured more people’s hearts than these guys did, and they did it the right way,” Miller said.
The Flyers hit one more field goal than Florida (19-18), but the Gators outrebounded them 37-26. They also had a massive edge at the free throw line (21 of 28) to (6 of 8).
Florida finished the first half on a 15-1 run to take the lead for good, going up 38-24. The Flyers opened the second half with two quick 3s to pull within eight, only to watch the Gators push their lead to 17 with 11:35 left on a layup by Young.
The Flyers kept coming but couldn’t get closer than eight in the second half, the last at 58-50. The Gators went cold down the stretch, once missing five shots on one possession with five offensive rebounds.
Dayton missed chances to cut the lead as Oliver missed a 3-pointer with 2:07 left, then Scoochie Smith threw it away trying to pass out to Matt Kavanaugh.
Miller said Pierre was completely exhausted late.
“You can’t go to a guy eight times in a row and expect him to score every time, but he gave us a fighting chance,” Miller said.
Then Wilbekin ended the Gators’ scoring drought at 4:39 with a pair of free throws, and he hit four of six at the line to finish the game.
Dayton took over the FedExForum so thoroughly that the Gators were booed when they came out for warm-ups and pre-game introductions. Miller tried to use his deep bench, using 11 Flyers at least 5 minutes trying to wear out the Gators with sheer numbers. Donovan nearly matched Dayton by going 10 deep himself.
The Gators went cold for nearly 6 minutes between a dunk by Casey Prather with 11:55 left in the half and a baseline drive by Frazier with 6:00 to go. The Flyers scored eight straight when Smith’s 3 gave them their first lead of the game at 21-19 with 6:58 remaining.
Kendall Pollard’s layup tied up Florida for the last time at 23, then Dorian Finney-Smith hit a free throw with 4:22 left putting the Gators ahead to stay.
As Florida went on its run, Dayton missed its final five shots. Finney-Smith grabbed a rebound of a missed 3 by Frazier and threw the ball back out for the final shot of the half. Wilbekin then beat the buzzer with a 3-pointer that helped quiet the Flyers’ faithful for the first time all day.