For tested Florida Gators, it’s Final Four or bust

Overall No. 1 seed UF hopes to avenge its previous three defeats in the Elite Eight with a win over 11th-seeded Dayton on Saturday for a trip to the Final Four.

03/29/2014 12:00 AM

03/29/2014 12:23 AM

A season’s worth of results has proven top-seeded Florida, winners of 29 in a row, should easily dismantle 11-seeded Dayton to complete an elusive trip to the Final Four.

If only.

For a special group of weathered and warted seniors, the Elite Eight has been a field of lane mines full of disastrous memories, but Saturday’s game (6:09 p.m., TBS) at the FedEx Forum against the upstart Flyers (26-10) offers one final chance to erase the ghosts of season’s past.

“We’re not going to let the past haunt us,” UF senior center Patric Young said.

Instead, Florida (35-2) has embraced its failures.

The disappointments against Butler (2011), Louisville (2012) and Michigan (2013) have clearly motivated the ‘Core Four’ — Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete — all year long.

UF overcame a plethora of unknowns to start the season, and after suffocating opponents with execution and efficiency for four months, it finds itself in a familiar position: destiny versus demons.

“We’ve never had some many question [marks] regarding things that were out of our control [at the start of the season],” Young said.

“Surgeries, Chris Walker’s eligibility, Scottie [Wilbekin’s] suspension. But we fought through it. It brought us closer together. … Now we’re here. It’s the last go-around to take that next step.”

Despite a team “in complete shambles” in early August, Billy Donovan’s squad never wavered and the mantra of “chasing greatness” inspired a group to become (possibly) the greatest team in school history.

Donovan’s “million” motivational analogies — most notably climbing Mount Everest — resonated with a hungry team and galvanized a group again on the doorstep of coronation.

“Early [Donovan] talked about laying the foundation,” said Young, on one of the many metaphors UF’s coach utilized this year.

“We tried to lay down good soil early in the year even though things were kind of tough. I believe because of the good soil we laid, we’re starting to reap what we’ve sown. Sticking to the process has allowed us to be successful now.”

It has.

For the third consecutive season, the Gators will face a double-digit seed after their opening game, but Florida — businesslike and firmly focused on Friday — refuses to take the Flyers lightly.

Dayton — a team that lost twice as many games as Florida has all year over a 10-day stretch in late January — is a dangerous three-point shooting team with an 11-man rotation complete with hockey-esque line changes.

Although FiveThitryEight stat-wiz Nate Silver gives the Flyers, 10-point underdogs, just a 17-percent chance to spring the upset, Young said the Gators don’t view the matchup as David versus Goliath.

“I don’t think they should be called David,” he said, bluntly.

“They beat Ohio State and Syracuse, two teams that have proven themselves historically and this season. If they can beat them, maybe we should worry about being underdogs this game.”

No, the Gators are definitely Goliath — only with a chip on their shoulder the size of David.

Young, who “flushed” his disappointing performance in Florida’s win over UCLA on Thursday night, spoke openly about opportunities “slipping out of [Florida’s] hands,” calling the 2012 loss to the Cardinals the hardest defeat of his career.

“It would never hit me that the season was over that we weren’t advancing to the Final Four,” said Young, who barely watched any of the National Semifinals over the past three years.

“We were so close so many times, but it motivated for us to keep fighting and not give up.”

They haven’t and now Young & Co. stand 40-minutes away from chronicling a new narrative.

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