Monday, January 22, 2018

Florida Gators back in Final Four, eyeing bigger prize


Finally, the University of Florida was head and shoulders above college basketball again.

It was early in the evening, and the beating was done, and one by one, the Gators players approached the ladder. Player by player, they climbed through the thinning air, and one by one, they snipped the cords of the net.

Time was, back seven years ago, the Gators used to do this net-cutting thing all the time. Back then, they were a program that lived in the clouds. But it has been a long time, such a long time, since then. Seasons came and seasons went, and pretty much, the Gators were stuck at the base of the ladder with no place left to climb.

You trim the nets only by reaching the Final Four, after all, and for the Gators, it had been so long. They had played 235 games since that 2007 title, and players such as Bradley Beal and Erving Walker and Chandler Parsons had come through the program, and the Gators had won 20 or more games every year. But for the past three, the Elite Eight was the exit ramp for Florida.

Saturday night, mercifully, it all changed. At 7:26 Central Standard Time, Michael Frazier climbed the ladder, and the Gators took turns admiring the view.

This was a dirty work win for the Gators, a sweat-and-grind kind of effort to beat the Dayton Flyers, 62-52, and finally reach the Final Four.

"It doesn't happen a lot to anybody," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "I think I've been able to do it a fair amount, and I've been very, very thankful for that. Then being on the cusp here the last few years, I mean, it's really hard to get to this point because every step along the way that you advance, you're playing against better teams that are playing just as well, if not better, than you.

"It's a great thrill. This is what the tournament is all about. You get a chance to go to a Final Four. Our guys have experienced a lot. They haven't experienced what they're getting ready to experience on Saturday."

First, however, the Gators had to go through the Dayton experience, in which a boisterous crowd led the sharp-shooting Flyers onto the floor. And sure enough, Dayton was pretty impressive from the perimeter, hitting 44.4 percent of its 3-pointers.

Ah, but Dayton didn't shoot the 2-pointer very well. The Flyers were only 11-of-30 from inside the arc, mainly because the Gators' inside game smothered them. Patric Young blocked four shots and influenced several others, and at one point, the Gators led 24-8 in scoring inside the paint.

For Florida, that was the hidden part of the game. The Gators themselves sputtered on offense in the second half, and Donovan admitted that Scottie Wilbekin handled the ball too much.

But that defense for the Gators never slumps. Kevin Carter and Wilber Marshall might as well be playing on it. Consider this: Dayton scored 24 from beyond the arc and 22 in front of it.

"I think our defensive mind-set is the foundation of our team," Young said. "We just take so much pride into being able to disrupt the team and being able to lock down guys. Whatever advantage we saw we had, we stuck with. Early, that was me inside. Late, us rebounding helped us solidify our win."

This time, it left Dayton as a one-dimensional opponent, able to hit from long range but unable to do much else.

"One we drove, we had to think pass, because you've got Young with his big old body," Dayton's Dyshawn Pierre said. "He altered shots very well. It was just hard to finish sometimes."

Finish. Now, there's an interesting word.

For some teams, the arrival at the Final Four is proof of a job well done. You've won a trophy for winning your region. You have the caps and the T-shirts. You have the net cords. The coach is labeled a genius, and the season is called a success.

This Gators team, however, will tell you that it isn't done yet.

"Honestly, I think I was happier when we won the SEC tournament game," Young said. "I felt just more pure joy. I think the reason was that our goal at the beginning of the year wasn't to be the South Regional champions. Our goal was to be the national champions.

"Walking up the ladder, I just was thinking about how I wanted to do this again. I want to do whatever I can to help this team reach that ultimate goal that we set at the beginning of the year. Just that feeling has helped me to stay humble. There is more hunger within us to keep this going."

And so they march on. Wilbekin, the former bad boy who has found redemption. Young, the center who wouldn't leave. Will Yeguete, the kid with the bad knees. Casey Prather, who found himself as a slasher. Frazier, the streaky shooter.

Together, they have become something to behold.

Two more wins, and they will be something to remember.


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