Advancing to the Final Four for the fifth time in school history and first time since 2007, the (1) Florida Gators (36-2) pulled off a 62-52 victory over the (11) Dayton Flyers (26-11) in the Elite Eight round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, TN. After the game, head coach Billy Donovan and some of his players met with the media to discuss the historic win.
POST-GAME CELEBRATION, NET CUTTING
Donovan and his players could not say it enough on Friday: Florida’s three-straight Elite Eight losses had nothing at all to do with Saturday’s game. Yet while the Gators’ roster is different, their chemistry is improved and they are currently in the midst of the most impressive single season in school history, it would have been a blemish had UF not overcome this obstacle.
Elite Eight demon, you have been exorcised.
“I’m not so sure that these four seniors, having gone through the experience in the previous Elite Eights, could have made the next step that they made,” Donovan said. “There were things we went through the last three years that enabled those guys to learn a lot to take the next step that they did this year.”
He continued: “They’re better players today by going through what they went through. If it would have been easier on them, I don’t think they’d be quite as good. I think the struggle they’ve had to go through has forced them to have perseverance, resiliency, mental and physical toughness to be able to battle and fight. More than anything else, as a coach, the thing you love about that is hopefully they can take those qualities to the next step in their life, because when they start a new career in their life, they’re going to go through some of that themselves.”
Senior center Patric Young was visibly stunned when the final buzzer sounded. He got jumped by senior forward Will Yeguete, stood motionless for a second and then got on one knee before standing up, letting everything truly sink in and beginning to celebrate with his teammates.
“The first thing that came to my mind – I was just in disbelief. It still hasn’t hit me that we’re going to be one of the Final Four teams in the country still playing for an opportunity at the championship,” he explained. “Beginning of the year, you always set your goal to make it here, especially last year when we ended in the same position, but we were the other team. It was kind of weird because I’m so used to walking into my locker room after that final buzzer. It was all just a shock and surprise and just gratitude.”
Next up for Young was an on-court with Rachel Nichols and then the ceremonial cutting down of the nets, the third time he has participated in the occurrence this season but surprisingly not the most the meaningful.
“Honestly, I think I was happier when we won the SEC Tournament game. I felt just more pure joy,” he admitted.
“I think the reason for that our goal at the beginning of the year wasn’t to be the South Regional champions. Our goal was to be national champions. And just walking up the ladder, I just was probably thinking about how I wanted to be able to do this again. I want to do whatever I can to help this team to reach that ultimate goal that we set at the beginning of the year, and just that feeling has helped me to stay humble to know that there’s more. There’s more hunger within us, within this whole team to keep going.”
DON’T STOP BELEVIN’
“I think the journey starts with the very first day of when we were all together at the beginning of this year,” recalled Young, thinking back to how Florida has gotten to the point of advancing to the Final Four. “Coach Donovan just started telling us that we got to lay down the foundation. Everything that’s happened in the past is nothing, no bearing on who we are going to be this up and coming year. …
“Coach Donovan continued to remind us and humble us and help us see that, in order to get where we want to get to, the end goal, we have to continue to chase greatness every single day and stay in the moment. Not thinking about the bigger picture, just minimize it to what you have to do now, off the court, on the court, just to get here.
“We just did that. We all bought into that. We had great team chemistry. We had great love for one another, great clicking on the court, competing every single day, and fought through all the adversity, and we made it here. So, just thankful that, in doing it the right way, we were able to make it here.”
Here is the Final Four, where the Gators are for the first time since 2007 and the fifth time in school history. Florida being connected was one part of the journey, but fighting through injuries, suspensions and other obstacles also played a large role. One could argue UF is better now because of those hurdles.
“The struggles that we went through this year have just made it that much more fun and brought us that much closer together. Throughout the season, each game playing has just gotten more fun and more fun. I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had in my life right now. Just, I love spending these games and spending the time with my teammates,” said senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin.
Asked to give his perspective on Florida’s success to this point – sweeping the league titles, winning the South Region and setting numerous school winning streak records – Donovan, who is never at a loss for words, once again had plenty to say about these Gators.
“It’s hard to believe what these guys have done. It’s amazing. These guys have been able to, for whatever reason, put stuff behind them. I think there were some incentives and some things out there in front of this team where we end up winning 14- or 15-in-a-row in the SEC regular season, and we’ve got a share or an outright SEC Championship, and then it’s what are these guys playing for now?
“It was the opportunity with last year being the first year of going to an 18 game league, trying to take that on as a challenge. We do that. Then you kind of get into a situation where you’re in one and done situations. You play three games in the SEC Tournament, so they’re not even thinking about a winning streak at that point. Then you get to the NCAA Tournament, and it’s still one and done. So they’re so far removed from the fact that how many games they’ve won in a row. All they know is, if they don’t play to the very best of their ability and they’re out performed or outplayed, they’re going home. That’s what happens this time of year.”
Going home was good news for this Florida team early Sunday morning, when it was met with hundreds of fans at the Gainesville Regional Airport all celebrating the program’s latest accomplishment. UF, however, does not want to be on that same flight exactly one week later. It would prefer to return to Gainesville on Monday night/Tuesday morning.
“We have nice names – Elite Eight and Sweet 16 and Final Four – but at the end of the day, you want to keep on playing,” Donovan explained. “If we’re not fortunate enough to move on past Saturday, you know, you can sit there and say, ‘Hey, Billy, you guys were so close, and you almost played for a National Championship.’ It’s the same thing. There’s no easy way out this time of year. Each team is more and more invested.”
Closing the first half on a 16-3 stretch, the Gators looked to finally be pulling away from the Flyers. But Florida had a chance to extend their lead and did just that by putting the ball in the hands of Wilbekin, who ran out the clock and drained an enormous buzzer-beating three-pointer to end the first half up 14.
“I think it was a big shot. It gave us a bigger lead,” Wilbekin said, “but I don’t think it demoralized them at all because they came out at halftime ready to play, and they hit two threes back to back and were playing good defense. So, I give them all the credit. They didn’t give up. They fought through the whole 40 minutes, but we did the same.”
Donovan has been putting the ball in Wilbekin’s hands all season, but the point guard’s ability to come through in the clutch at the end of both halves has been something the Gators have been missing for quite some time.
“I trust Scottie enough to put him in those situations,” he explained. “He felt more comfortable just with the floor spaced to not bring help to the basketball. And, obviously, it was a big shot going into the half because it put us up 14.”
DEFENSE, REBOUNDS AND FREE THROWS
Most of the time, a team that only hits five field goals in the second half is going to drop that particular game. Florida, however, was able to beat Dayton and do so by double digits by using its entire catalog.
“I think our defensive mindset is the foundation of our team. We just take so much pride into being able to disrupt the team and being able to lock down guys,” explained Young. “I think every single one of our guys is committed to that for 40 minutes, just making the hustle plays, right rotations. We know in order to be a good defensive team each individual guy has to do their job and has to help the other guy. So, we’re all bought in on that and to have that as our main focus going into every game.”
The Gators also dominated the glass, outrebounding the Flyers 37-26 and grabbing 12 offensive boards including four on a single possession. Florida was able to run out the clock late in the contest and ensure that Dayton simply did not have enough time to mount any time of legitimate comeback.
“I thought the game was won by the offensive rebounds. I thought we had a couple of good looks,” Donovan said.
UF was also superb at the charity stripe, not only getting the chance to take 28 free throws but also knocking down 21 of them for a .750 average.
“For us, it was rebounding, the free throw line,” Donovan added. “If you look at the free throw line, our offensive rebounding had a lot to do with that, which made that up. Although we only made five field goals in that second half, we at least were able to get to the free throw line quite a bit.”
WHAT’S THE SCENARIO?
With two Elite Eight games left to play, Florida could face a number of quite interesting scenarios once the Final Four are decided on Sunday night. Consider these possibilities:
» With (2) Wisconsin in and wins by (7) UConn and (2) Michigan, the Final Four would consist of the last three teams to beat UF dating back to the 2013 Elite Eight. The Gators would also have a chance to avenge both of their losses from this season.
» With (2) Wisconsin in and a win by (4) Michigan State, the Final Four would consist of three of the four teams that were also in the 2000 Final Four, when Florida beat North Carolina on the way to facing Michigan State in the title game.
» With (2) Wisconsin in wins by (7) UConn and (8) Kentucky, the Final Four would consist of three other teams Florida has already faced this season. UF would have a 3-2 record against the Final Four teams.
» With (2) Wisconsin in and wins by (4) Michigan State and (8) Kentucky, the Final Four would only consist of teams from the SEC and Big 10 with each having a semifinal match-up before the title game.
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Florida advanced to the Final Four for the fifth time in school history, fourth time under Donovan and first time since 2007. The Gators are 3-2 all-time in the Final Four, 3-1 under Donovan.
» UF improved to 10-0 all-time as the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
» Florida has played in 58 games in 19 NCAA Tournament appearances, holding a 42-16 all-time record in the event.
» The Gators have played 46 of those 58 games under Donovan, going 35-11 in those contests over 15 NCAA Tournaments, which makes Donovan No. 1 in NCAA Tournament winning percentage among active coaches (.761).
» UF is now 5-3 in Elite Eight games all-time, 4-3 under Donovan.
» The Gators will enter the Final Four on a program-record 30-game winning streak with victories in 35 of their last 36 games.
» Florida is now 9-0 in neutral-site games this season.
» The Gators improved to 35-5 playing as the top team in the country.
» Florida’s 36 wins set a school record for most in a single season.
» Wilbekin on being named Most Outstanding Player of the South Region: “I’m happy about the award, but it’s nothing compared to winning. Just, winning feels so good. I’m just so happy right now that we were able to achieve what we did so far with this group of guys. It just makes it that much more special with the guys on my left and the guys on my right.”
» Wilbekin on having to rub ice above his knees early in the second half: “For some reason, as soon as the second half started, I felt cramps coming in my legs, about to cramp up. So, I got some ice on it, and I was fine for the rest of the game.”
» Dayton head coach Archie Miller on the Gators: “Congratulations to Florida. 36 2 is 36 2. That’s a very, very good team. To be on the same floor with them, you know, was really a big time feeling for everyone in our program, you know, to be on the floor, to be able to compete with them. They do it the right way, and Coach Donovan’s first class all the way. So, congratulations to them.”
» Miller on why Florida’s defense is so outstanding: “They got a couple different phases to it. Their press gets you into a half court system where you either have to let your players play and rely on them to make the decisions, or you have to really slow it down and try to create offense through sets and whatnot. That can really take you out of your game with one day prep or whatever you’ve got to play them. Secondly, you’re talking about I-don’t-know-how-many seniors, but strong, big, physical. They play hard, and everything around the basket is difficult. It’s challenged. … Make no mistake about it, defense wins them games. You can say what you want to say about their entire season. Their defense is there every game, and they’re great on the glass as well. You don’t get very many second shots. So to their credit, I think they’ve got a great system. They’ve got great personnel, and they play extremely hard.”