"I think our defensive mindset is the foundation of our team," senior center/forward Patric Young said after the win. "We just take so much pride into being able to disrupt the team and being able to lock down guys.
"I think every single one of our guys is committed to that for 40 minutes, just making the hustle plays, right rotations. We know in order to be a good defensive team; each individual guy has to do their job and has to help the other guy. So we're all bought in on that and to have that as our main focus going into every game. "
This has helped the Gators this season, especially when they are in hostile environments or environments where it doesn't seem like a home game. They got that in Memphis as the one seed against UCLA and then as Dayton fans filled the arena for the regional championship. It hasn't been easy.
"I think here in the postseason, we've had to earn it," Florida head coach Billy Donovan said. "We played in the SEC tournament championship game, and it was basically a home game for Kentucky. And I would say coming in here, although I thought we had a really good turnout of Gator fans, clearly there were more Dayton fans in the building. I'm sure with the whole seeding situation, people wanted to see them get a win and move on to the Final Four.
"I think that this postseason, we've been in some situations we've had to earn it, and I thought today we had to earn it. Maybe Archie didn't feel like his team played great to close that first half, but I thought that they got off to a good start, had a little bit of a lull in the second half, and played pretty well coming down the stretch." This team has been all about doing the dirty work. Rebounding, steals, unselfish players willing to let others make the play. On Saturday, Florida owned the boards with a plus 11, and the four inside guys that played prominent minutes, Young, and forwards Casey Prather, Will Yeguete, and Dorian Finney-Smith finished with 29 of the 37 rebounds the Gators had in the game.
"Rebounding on the glass helped us to solidify our win tonight," Young said. "I was just glad that I could have an impact, especially down low, and all the rest of my teammates."
With the Gators up by double digits but Dayton cutting into an even bigger lead, Florida had a possession that ended with five missed shots and five rebounds. Finally they ended up at the free throw line. The free throws along with rebounds were the two biggest stats for the Gators on Saturday. Florida shot 28 free throws and made 21, while Dayton only shot eight and made six. Donovan said getting to the backboard helped the Gators get to the free throw line.
"I thought the game was won by the offensive rebounds," Donovan said. "If you look at the free throw line, our offensive rebounding had a lot to do with that, which made that up. Although we only made five field goals in that second half, we at least were able to get to the free throw line quite a bit."
Florida led Dayton by 14 at half with a score of 38-24. The Flyers made quick work of that lead scoring six quick points and cutting it to eight in the first minute of the second half with two quick three-point shots. For the next four minutes the lead went from 8-10 and back again before the Gators then added a quick seven to their lead.
Florida has learned to ride the waves and runs that teams make and understands that the game is 40 minutes long. Donovan says that comes from experience of four seniors that have been through a lot of battles and the depth that his team has in this tournament.
"I think they understand the length of a game and how long the game is, and I think they're very, very good at making adjustments with what's going on inside of a game," Donovan said of his guys. "With the bench, we can do things with this group because they're pretty basketball savvy. They've got a good IQ. You can make adjustments and changes. There are different things you can do.
"Where we can show a team something early in the game, and then we can show them something different maybe midway through the game, that's a credit to those guys that we're able to do that. When teams go on runs, can we really pull together as a team? I thought last year that was a weakness of ours. I thought we struggled at that. I thought, when teams hit us with a run, we almost got, not fractured where it was chemistry issues, but we all weren't pulling together. Guys were either worried about the last play or the play didn't go their way or I'm 0 for 5.
"This group has learned that you've got to be able to pull together when it gets tough. That's what we've done a good job of, maybe a better job than we did last year."
The unselfishness of the team has benefited them a great deal. The depth has provided the older guys that have been around to gather themselves at times, or allowed the team to continue in games when someone gets into foul trouble.
Early on Donovan subbed for the starters because Dayton is a deep team that regularly uses 12 players in any game and likes to move around and run when given the chance.
"I think it helped," Donovan said of the early substitutions. "We're always going to sub and use guys. It's always what we've been able to do. We probably played too many guys in extended minutes in that first half because of foul trouble with Prather and Hill.
In the end, the Gators finished with another 10-point victory. They have won every game in the 2014 NCAA Tournament by double digits. Only six teams have done that in the first four games ever and five of those six went on to win the National Championship.
Getting to the Final Four has been elusive for the Gators in the last four years, but not for Billy Donovan and his career. He's now going to coach in his fifth Final Four. He and Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski are the only two active coaches that can say that. Donovan understands the meaning, even if his guys haven't been a part of it yet.
"It doesn't happen a lot to anybody," he said. "I think I've been able to do it a fair amount, and I've been very, very thankful for that. Then being on the cusp here the last few years, I mean, it's really, really hard to get to this point because every step along the way that you advance, you're playing against better teams that are playing just as well, if not better than you.
"But we got a chance to do it in 2000, '06, '07, and here in '14. So it's been nice. Obviously, we came up a little bit short the last three years, real short last year. The two years before that… maybe not so bad. Yeah, I mean, it's a great thrill. This is what the tournament is all about. You get a chance to go to a Final Four. Obviously, it's a spectacle. It's a great sporting event. Our guys experienced a lot. They haven't experienced what they're getting ready to experience on Saturday."
Wilbekin continues to play at a high level
Much has been made of what Florida and senior guard Scottie Wilbekin had to go through to start the season. Wilbekin missed the first five games of the year after being suspended by Donovan. He was told to consider transferring, forced off campus and told to live with his family until he straightened up.
Since his return to the team, the Gators have gone 32-1 and only lost in a game he didn't finish on the road at Elite-8 team UConn, who took Florida in overtime without Wilbekin and won on a last second shot by All-American Shabazz Napier. He was named the Player of the Year in the SEC and the SEC Tournament MVP.
He's continued the success in the NCAA tournament. He has 12 assists on just two turnovers in the four games and is averaging 16.8 points including the 23 he had Saturday. Wilbekin is averaging 35 minutes a game and has six steals in four games. On Thursday night he was assigned the duty of stopping Dayton's best scorer in Jordan Sibert, he finished with no points on the night.
Wilbekin finished as the Most Outstanding Player of the South Region.
Wilbekin also has a little swag about him and has the knack for the awkward if not miraculous shot. As time ran out on the game clock in the first half and the Gators up by 11, Wilbekin held the ball for the final shot and launched from deep with a defender in his face. As the clock hit zero, the ball went through the net. It was huge in terms of the overall flow of the game.
"I think it was a big shot," Wilbekin understated on the podium after the game. "It gave us a bigger lead."
Donovan wouldn't have anyone else in that position. He actually deferred to Wilbekin on talking the shot.
"I had a play on that I was trying to bring somebody to him to set a high pick and roll," Donovan said. "It's kind of a little bit different action that we run that's a little bit kind of a slip screen and it opens up the floor a bit.
Obviously, like any play, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I think he liked the matchup, and he said, ‘Coach, can we go flat?' Which is we put four along the baseline and move guys underneath the basket and offensive rebound. I trust Scottie enough to put him in those situations.
"He felt more comfortable just with the floor spaced to not bring help to the basketball. And, obviously, it was a big shot going into the half because it put us up 14.
Wilbekin came out in the second half with cramps, but was able to work through them and finished the game playing 38 minutes. The Gators needed him for all 38. He was happy to finish and celebrate.
"For some reason, as soon as the second half started, I felt cramps coming in my legs, about to cramp up," he said. "So I got some ice on it, and I was fine for the rest of the game. Winning feels so good. I'm just so happy right now that we were able to achieve what we did so far with this group of guys. It just makes it that much more special with the guys on my left and the guys on my right."