MEMPHIS -- The feel-good story of the 2014 NCAA tournament ended as so many feel-good underdog stories do: at the hands of a top-seeded favorite. Last season, Florida clinically ended Florida Gulf Coast's dunk-filled Cinderella run. On Saturday, the Gators sent Dayton home 62-52, and this time their reward is a long-awaited trip to the Final Four.
The Flyers didn't fade away. With 12 minutes left in the second half, Florida led 51-36 and looked set to cruise. But Dayton, led by the determined work of guard Dyshawn Pierre, kept incrementally pushing back in the second half. With 2:37 to play, the Flyers trailed by just eight. It was an off night in a handful of ways, but Pierre & Co. kept things interesting for longer than anyone could have expected midway through the second half.
Florida's size won the game. The Gators had their fair share of ugly possessions in the last 10 minutes of the second half, which usually went like this: Shoot the ball, scrap for a rebound, shoot the ball, scrap for a rebound, rinse, repeat. But even when Florida came away from those trips empty-handed, the rebounds spoke to the dominance the Gators wielded over Dayton around the rim. Patric Young was a force on both ends of the floor, finishing with 4 blocks, 6 rebounds and 12 points -- most of which were scored after he sealed a Dayton defender into oblivion under the rim.
Also: The rebounding battle wasn't close. Dayton likewise faced a much taller Stanford team in its first game in Memphis (which was true of its wins over New Mexico and Syracuse, too), but the Flyers were able to play the Cardinal to a draw on the glass by being quicker and craftier in the gaps of the Stanford zone. There were no such openings Saturday night. Florida rebounded more than 80 percent of Dayton's misses. Good first-shot defense helped the Gators as usual, but Dayton made a few shots, too (it finished 8-of-18 from 3). Most important was Florida's comprehensive rebounding effort.
Scottie Wilbekin was good when he needed to be. For the second time in as many games, the SEC Player of the Year didn't have a good shooting night -- he finished 6-of-14 from the field. But he went 3-of-5 from 3, including a re-tee attempt late in the second half after Dorian Finney-Smith corralled one of UF's dozen offensive rebounds. It was the shot of the game, providing the buffer a cold Gators team needed to hold off Dayton's last-ditch push down the stretch.
Dayton's fans were great. Coaches and players talk all the time about how the exposure of the NCAA tournament reveals to the world things locals take for granted. Rarely was that maxim more true than with Dayton. The city and university have long shared a special relationship with the basketball team through thick and thin. If nothing else, this team's run -- marked by thousands of students celebrating in the streets, and the thousands of Dayton fans who giddily flooded into Memphis this week -- showed off that relationship to the world.