University of Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin spotted up and drained a three-point shot from the top of the key at the halftime buzzer Saturday night.
He then jogged off the court with arms raised and sporting a confident grin.
Even though 20 minutes were left to be played, the Gators just knew they would finish this time.
Led by Wilbekin’s 23 points, Florida put aside the failures of the past three seasons and punched its ticket to the Final Four with a 62-52 victory over Dayton in the South Region Final at the FedEx Forum.
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“Coach [Billy] Donovan said before the game that it feels like you’re destined, like things happen for a reason,” Wilbekin said. “He felt like we were all brought together on this team for a reason. I think that couldn’t be more true.”
Wilbekin and Florida’s other seniors — Casey Prather, Will Yeguete and Patric Young — finally got the chance to cut the nets together with Donovan after watching other teams do it following Elite Eight defeats each of the past three seasons.
“I’m not so sure these four seniors, having gone through the experiences in the previous Elite Eights, could have made the next step they made,” said Donovan of the seniors who have together won a school-record 120 career games. “This group has learned that you’ve got to be able to pull together when it gets tough.”
Florida advanced to its fifth Final Four overall and first since winning the second of back-to-back national championships in 2007.
The Gators will play Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, against the winner of Sunday’s East Region final between Michigan State and Connecticut.
“I was just in disbelief,” Young said. “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.”
Wilbekin’s confidently struck three-pointer just before the halftime buzzer capped a 15-1 run that put Florida (36-2) ahead for good and sent it to its national-best and school-record 30th consecutive victory.
Wilbekin scored nine points during the Gators’ late first-half surge that erased Dayton’s brief two-point lead (its only advantage of the game) and capped it with his buzzer-beating three-pointer.
On the possession, Wilbekin held the ball for most of the final 30 seconds at the top of the key before spotting and draining the shot.
Wilbekin was named the Most Outstanding Player of the South Region. He and guard Michael Frazier II, who finished with 10 points, were each named to the All-Region team.
“I think there are some incentives and some things out there in front of this team where we ended up winning 14 or 15 in a row during the SEC regular season, and we’ve got an outright SEC championship, and then it’s what are these guys playing for now?” Donovan said. “Then you get into a situation where you’re in one-and-done situations.
“They’re not even thinking about a winning streak at that point. So they’re so far removed from the fact of how many games they’ve won in a row.
“All they know is, if they don’t play to the best of their ability and they’re outperformed or outplayed, they’re going home.”
Young finished with 12 points — one more than his combined 11 points in Florida’s two previous tournament victories — and had six rebounds and four blocks.
The Gators needed Young’s resurgence to make the lead stick in a second half that was marred by a horrific 1-for-15 shooting slump over the final 11-plus minutes of the game.
Young’s layup with 11:25 left gave Florida its largest lead at 53-36.
Dayton cut the deficit to 58-50 with 3:55 left thanks largely to nine consecutive points by forward Dyshawn Pierre.
But the Gators ability to collect offensive rebounds and aggressively defend both the perimeter and the paint kept the Flyers (26-11) from getting any closer.
Dayton, the No. 11 seed and arguably the most compelling underdog story of this year’s tournament so far, made 8 of 18 three-point shots.
But the Flyers, who made their best run in the tournament since 1984, missed four of their final five shots and couldn’t stop Florida from collecting five crucial offensive rebounds that took precious time off the clock.
The Gators finished with 12 total offensive rebounds.
“Make no mistake about it, defense wins them games,” Dayton coach Archie Miller said. “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.”