MEMPHIS, Tenn. — As Scottie Wilbekin dribbled out the final seconds remaining on the clock, Patric Young held his head in disbelief while Will Yeguete embraced him. At the same time, Casey Prather yelled a cry of joy, bolting to the floor and then chest-bumping teammate Dorian Finney-Smith.
For this group, it was an emotional moment four years in the making. At last, after three straight Elite Eight exits, Florida had finally gotten over the hump.
Behind Wilbekin’s 23 points, No. 1 seed Florida (36-2) held off No. 11 seed Dayton 62-52 on Saturday to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2007 and the fourth time under coach Billy Donovan. Now, the Gators will prepare for a Final Four date next Saturday at 6:09 p.m. in Arlington, Texas, with No. 7 seed UConn, which defeated fourth-seeded Michigan State 60-54 on Sunday in Madison Square Garden.
After Saturday’s win, Florida players danced at center court, hoisted the Final Four trophy and then cut down the nets as "Celebration" by Kool & the Gang blared through the FedExForum speakers. The scene was a 180-degree turn from the previous three years, when UF suffered losses to Butler (74-71 in overtime), Louisville (72-68) and Michigan (79-59) in three consecutive Elite Eight appearances.
"Tears were in my eyes again," Young said, "but it was of joy this time."
Dayton, the Cinderella of this year’s tournament, hung with Florida for much of the first half. The Flyers (26-11) led 21-19 at the 6:58 mark thanks to four three-pointers, but UF closed out the half on a 19-3 run.
Wilbekin fueled the rally, scoring 11 points during the span and capping it off with an improvisational buzzer-beating three. With 15,443 fans watching — the majority supporting Dayton — he wasted the final 33 seconds of the clock, pulled up for a three at the top of the key and drained it over Dayton’s Vee Sanford as the buzzer sounded.
After sinking the shot, the senior point guard jogged to the locker room with his arms held high.
"When he shot it, I just knew it was going in," Prather said. "Everybody has confidence in him, and he has confidence to take those shots."
Florida led by as many as 17 points about midway through the second half, but Dayton soon made a charge. Behind seven straight points from forward Dyshawn Pierre, the Flyers cut their deficit to 58-50 with 3:55 left.
"I give them all the credit," said Wilbekin, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the South Regional. "They fought through the whole 40 minutes, but we did the same."
During UD’s run, the Gators appeared worn down to Donovan. Then, their rebounding prowess and free-throw shooting ultimately made the difference.
The Gators outrebounded the Flyers 7-0 on the offensive glass in the game’s final 6:08 and went 4 of 7 at the line to seal the win.
"The game was won by our offensive rebounding, by our free-throw shooting," Donovan said. "That was really, I think, the story of the game."
Florida held a high-octane Dayton team to 39.6 percent shooting and its lowest-scoring contest this year. The Gators shot only 37.5 percent from the floor but made 21 of 28 free throws compared to Dayton’s 8-of-18 clip from the charity stripe.
Wilbekin’s 23 points on 6-of-14 shooting tie a career high. Young chipped in 12 points and six boards, while Frazier added 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting.
Next up for the Gators are the Huskies — the last group to hand Donovan’s squad a loss.
Since UConn guard Shabazz Napier sunk UF’s hopes on a buzzer-beater to win 65-64 in Storrs, Conn., on Dec. 2, Florida has won 30 straight games.
No. 2 seed Wisconsin, the only other team to hand UF a loss this season, and No. 8 seed Kentucky, which UF beat three times this year, are set to join No. 1 seed Florida and No. 7 seed UConn in Arlington.
The Gators will travel to Cowboys Stadium joyful after overcoming a daunting obstacle but still hungry to avenge a loss to UConn and achieve their final goal.
"I don’t think any team wants to go to the Final Four and be like, "All right, we made it. That’s it,’" Young said.
"We’re going to go … into the game fearless."
Follow Landon Watnick on Twitter @LandonWatnick.