MEMPHIS — The reality started to hit Scottie Wilbekin as he stood at the free-throw line with 38 seconds remaining in the game and his Florida Gators ahead by eight points over Dayton. He reminded himself that he would still have to take the ball up the court at least once more, so he needed to keep his emotions in check.
Senior center Patric Young said it took several moments after the final horn had sounded for the reality to hit him.
When it all became clear, this was what both realized: After three consecutive NCAA Tournament Elite Eight appearances that ended in defeat and heartbreak, the Florida Gators are going to the Final Four.
The No. 1-seeded Gators led by as many as 17 in the second half then held on for a 62-52 victory over No. 11 Dayton in front of 15,443 at FedExForum.
The Gators (36-2) have won 30 consecutive games and will play in the program's fifth Final Four — the first since Florida won a national title in 2007.
"When the buzzer sounded it was just like, 'Finally,' " said Wilbekin, who scored a game-high 23 and was named the South Region Most Outstanding Player. "We had the opportunity the last three years — well, not last year (Florida lost 79-59 to Michigan). But I'm just happy that we had this one last chance and we were able to take advantage of it. I'm just so happy."
The Gators took advantage with the defense that has been their staple all season. Florida shot just 5-of-21 from the field in the second half, but its defense compensated, holding held Dayton (26-11) to a season low in points and outrebounding the Flyers 37-26.
"We gave up eight 3s, four in each half, but I thought the game was won by our offensive rebounding, by our free-throw shooting and that was really, I think, the story of the game," Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
Dayton went in shooting nearly 40 percent from 3-point range, and Donovan said the way the Flyers spaced and forced Florida to "run to the 3-point line" left the team exhausted in the final five minutes. Florida outscored Dayton 24-18 in the paint and had 15 points off turnovers and 13 second-chance points.
Though the baskets weren't falling in the second half, Florida was aggressive driving to the basket and drawing fouls. The Gators made 21 of 28 free throws.
Florida led 53-36 with 11:25 left, but Dayton went on a 14-5 run to pull within 58-50 with 3:54 left. Dayton forward Dyshawn Pierre scored nine in a row during that run and finished with 18 points.
"Dayton is a great team, give them credit," said Florida guard Michael Frazier, who was named to the All-Region team. "They fought hard the entire game. I never felt personally that we had the game won until the buzzer went off."
Dayton coach Archie Miller said several things make the Gators' defense tough to handle, including their press and a strong presence inside.
"Make no mistake about it, defense wins them games," Miller said. "You can say what you want 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."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]