The Florida Four finally is headed to the Final Four.
If you believe there will be a happier group of basketball players next week in Arlington than the four-man senior nucleus that spent Saturday helping the Gators punch their ticket to AT&T Stadium, think again.
The postgame smiles, hugs, fist pumps and prayers spoke volumes for Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, Will Yeguete and Casey Prather as they helped cut down the nets after Saturday’s 62-52 victory over Dayton in the FedEx Forum.
For this group of Gators, who make up 80 percent of Florida’s starting lineup, a four-year journey filled with heartbreak, disappointment and missed opportunities finally carried them to a berth in college basketball’s biggest event.
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It took 149 games, three gut-wrenching losses as the favored team in Elite Eight matchups and 15 back-and-forth minutes in the first half of Saturday’s matchup against Dayton before the Gators made meaningful headway toward the program’s first Final Four berth since 2007.
But the Gators locked this one up with a 15-1 surge in the final 4:22 of the first half. The flurry gave Florida (36-2) a 38-24 lead at intermission and the Gators rarely were slowed in the second half while securing their 30th consecutive victory.
To the Florida veterans, this triumph was much sweeter than the 29 that preceded it. Not only did it clinch a Final Four berth in Arlington against Connecticut or Michigan State, it ended three years of frustrations and doubts after Florida fell as the favorite with Final Four berths on the line against Michigan (2013), Louisville (2012) and Butler (2011).
You could sense the joy and relief in players’ voices as Florida’s seniors spoke of their long-awaited debut as a Final Four team despite a combined record of 120-29 in their college careers. You could see it in their faces as Wilbekin, the team’s point guard, thrust his arms into the air after dribbling out the clock. It was clear as Yeguete, a forward, raced to midcourt to grab Young, the team’s 6-foot-9 center, in a bear hug.
“This is really sweet. I wouldn’t want it any other way,” said Young, who took time for a silent prayer after Yeguete’s hug before joining his teammates in the net-cutting ceremony. “It was a rough three years, coming up short and just not understanding why we couldn’t get there. We had everything we needed but we’ve fallen short. We’ve been hardened to the process. And now we’ve finally made it.
“It was kind of weird because I’m so used to walking into my locker room after that final buzzer. To be cutting down nets, it was all just a shock and surprise. And just gratitude.”
For Wilbekin, who contributed a game-high 23 points and was selected as the Most Outstanding Player of the South Regional, this year’s journey has been the rockiest among the senior starters. He missed the Gators’ first five games while suspended for an unspecified violation of team rules. Since his return, Florida is 31-1 in games he has started.
He called it “special” to be the guy who killed the clock in the game that secured the lone Final Four berth for members of an otherwise prolific senior class.
“That means everything,” Wilbekin said. “I wouldn’t want to it with any other guys. All year, our motto has been to fight through every possession, stay in the moment and play together as a team. We did that, and the whole experience has been fun. I’m just happy I get to share it with these guys.”
Appropriately, the Gators’ seniors did most of the heavy lifting in the 15-1 stretch that allowed Florida to wrest control of a 23-23 contest away from Dayton, the No. 11 seed in the South. Wilbekin struck for nine points, including a walk-off 3-pointer as the first-half clock expired. Yeguete added a layup after an offensive rebound.
Young (12 points, 6 rebounds) blocked shots on back-to-back layup attempts by Dayton center Matt Kavanaugh during the early stages of the surge, leading to a breakaway layup by Wilbekin and a 3-pointer by Michael Frazier. Moments later, Yeguete’s putback gave Florida its first double-digit lead (33-23) with 1:49 remaining.
A couple of Dayton runs in the second half stirred the pro-Flyers crowd. But Florida never let its lead dwindle below eight points while earning the right to try and win a national championship in the same venue where the Gators’ 2013 season ended with a 79-59 loss to Michigan.
“It’s hard to believe what these guys have done. It’s amazing,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan, whose team set a school record for single-season victories (30) and will head to Arlington on a program-best 30-game winning streak. “These guys have been able to put stuff behind them and move on.”
The return trip to Arlington motivates these Gators, especially as a Final Four venue.
“It’s not going to overwhelm us,” Young said. “We’re going to go into the game thinking we can win, feeling as though we’ll play fearless.”
After three years of frustration, that’s quite a change in mindset for the Gators as they prepare for a long-awaited trip to the Final Four.