By Teresa M. Walker
MEMPHIS, Tenn.: The Florida Gators are first yet again this season.
Scottie Wilbekin scored 14 of his 23 points in the first half, and Florida became the first team to advance to the Final Four with a 62-52 win Saturday night over the 11th-seeded Dayton Flyers in the South Regional final.
The Gators reached their fifth Final Four after losing at this point in each of the past three NCAA tournaments. This time, they came in as the country’s top-ranked team and the overall No. 1 seed.
Florida won its 30th straight game and improved to 36-2, topping the 35 wins by the 2007 national championship squad.
Patric Young scored 12 points, and Michael Frazier II added 10 for Florida. The Gators will play either Connecticut or Michigan State in Arlington, Texas, in the national semifinal.
Dyshawn Pierre led the Flyers (26-11) with 18 points. Devin Oliver added 12 points.
Dayton came in trying to become only the fourth 11 seed to advance to the Final Four. The Flyers upset Ohio State, Syracuse and Stanford in reaching their first regional final since 1984. They missed their second Final Four and first since 1967 with Florida holding them to their lowest scoring game this season.
The Flyers outshot Florida 39.6 percent (19-of-48) to 37.5 percent (18-of-48), but the Gators outrebounded them 37-26. They also had a massive edge at the free-throw line (21-of-28) compared to Dayton (6-of-8).
Florida finished the first half on a 15-1 run to take the lead for good, going up 38-24. The Flyers opened the second half with two quick 3-pointers to pull within eight, only to watch the Gators push their lead to 17 with 11:35 left on a layup by Young.
The Flyers kept coming but couldn’t get closer than eight points in the second half, the last at 58-50 as the Gators went cold down the stretch, once missing five shots on one possession.
Dayton missed chances to cut the lead as Oliver missed a 3-pointer with 2:07 left, then Scoochie Smith threw it away trying to pass out to Matt Kavanaugh. Then Wilbekin ended the Gators’ scoring drought at 4:39 with two free throws, and he hit 4-of-6 at the line to finish the game.
Dayton took over the FedExForum so thoroughly that the Gators were booed when they came out for warm-ups and pre-game introductions. Archie Miller tried to use his deep lineup of reserves, using 10 Flyers trying to wear out the Gators with sheer numbers. Florida coach Billy Donovan nearly matched Dayton by going nine deep himself.
The Gators went cold for nearly six minutes between a dunk by Casey Prather with 11:55 left and a baseline drive by Frazier with 6:00 to go. The Flyers scored eight straight when Scoochie Smith’s 3-pointer gave them their first lead of the game at 21-19 with 6:58 remaining.
Kendall Pollard’s layup tied up Florida for the last time at 23, then Dorian Finney-Smith hit a free throw with 4:22 left putting the Gators ahead to stay.
As Florida went on its run, Dayton missed its final five shots. Finney-Smith grabbed a rebound of a missed 3 by Frazier and threw the ball back out so the Gators could finish the half by taking the last shot. Wilbekin then beat the buzzer with a 3-pointer that helped quiet the Flyers’ faithful for the first time all day.