Scottie Wilbekin's walkoff three before halftime gave the Gators a 38-24 lead at the break. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty)
Dayton beat three flawed teams to reach the Elite Eight of this NCAA tournament. Ohio State, the Flyers’ round of 64 opponent, struggled offensively. Syracuse, their round of 32 opponent, lost four of its last six regular season games. And Stanford was too slow to stop Dayton in their Sweet 16 matchup on Thursday. The Florida team the Flyers took on Saturday at Fedex Forum in Memphis is a juggernaut. The No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, the Gators are as complete a team as exists in college basketball this season. They presented a challenge far greater than any Dayton had faced.
In a dominant performance that served to reaffirm Florida’s status as the frontrunner to cut down the nets in Arlington nine days from now, the Gators handled Dayton, 62-52. With its superior strength and athleticism, Florida stifled Dayton’s high-octane offense and got solid production from its starting backcourt duo, Michael Frazier II and Scottie Wilbekin, who combined for 33 points on 14-of-22 shooting.
The Flyers hung with Florida through most of the first half, but the Gators created separation with a 15-2 run and headed into the break with a commanding 38-24 lead. Thanks to a scoring spurt from forward DyShawn Pierre, who led the Flyers with 18 points, Dayton was able to slice into Florida’s lead in the second half, pulling within 8, at 50-58, near the four-minute mark. But the Gators closed the door by locking down on defense and making their free throws.
There will be no party on Dayton’s campus tonight, no priceless visuals of a university president crowdsurfing. Still, Dayton will exit the tourney having accomplished more than most ever expected. Consider what the Flyers, a No. 11 seed unsure about even making the tournament on Selection Sunday, accomplished in this tourney. Saturday's result doesn't diminish their run to the Elite Eight.
Already an overwhelming favorite in the South Region, Florida’s path to the Final Four opened up when both Kansas and Syracuse were ousted in the third round. The Gators, which have exited in the Elite Eight in the past three seasons, fought off Albany in the round of 64, crushed Pittsburgh two days later in the round of 32 and outlasted UCLA in the Sweet 16. Saturday’s win pits Florida against the winner of the East Regional Final, between No. 7 seed Connecticut and No. 4 seed Michigan State at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.