“Smash the Slipper” has been a phrase the University of Florida has come to use and master over the course of their basketball program’s success.
In 2006, the Gators defeated 11 seed George Mason in the Final Four on their way to winning a National Championship. In 2013, the Gators defeated 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast in the Sweet 16. And on Saturday, they added to that list of conquered Cinderellas by defeating the 11 seed Dayton Flyers 62-52, claiming the South Region Title and clearing their path the Final Four.
There was a lot of hype going into this game; there always is when a lower seed makes it to a place they “shouldn’t,” but make no mistake, Dayton deserved to be there. However, so did Florida, which is something many people seemed to forget.
The game started with fans from both sides cheering as loud as they could, but Dayton fans far outmatched Florida fans in number and in volume. However, their enthusiasm was capped for just a moment with a Scottie Wilbekin 3-pointer for the Gators to make the score 7-2 early on — that five point deficit was Dayton’s largest deficit of the entire tournament up to that point.
But that was only the beginning, and both teams knew the game was young. At one point, the score became 21-19 Dayton (their only lead) thanks to a few clutch 3-point baskets from Dayton’s Devin Oliver who ended the game with 12 points.
But that was Dayton’s only lead, and from there, their spirits may not have crumbled, but their offense would.
As the half winded down, Florida was looking at the last possession with the ball in Wilbekin’s hands. As the clock neared zero and with flashbacks of the SEC tournament, Wilbekin nailed a pull-up 3-pointer to bring the score to 38-24, Gators — Wilbekin had 14 points at half.
After the game, Wilbekin talked about the magnitude of that shot but credited the Flyers’ determination for 40 minutes, especially recovering after that shot to end the half.
“I don’t think it demoralized them at all because they came out at halftime ready to play and they hit two threes back-to-back and were playing good defense,” Wilbekin said. “So I gave them all the credit. They didn’t give up. They fought through the whole 40 minutes, but so did we.”
Dayton came out of the half just as Wilbekin said, with two big 3-pointers to bring the game back to single digits.
The game then became a chess match with a lot of strategy and not a lot of success for both teams on the offensive end. After the game, Florida head coach Billy Donovan talked about how different this team was than the ones in the past that couldn’t get over the Elite 8 hump.
“(The question was) 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,” Donovan said, “I thought, when this team hits 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 a play that 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.”
As the game dipped below 10 minutes to play, Florida went on a cold streak trying to take all 35 seconds of the shot clock and then leaning on Wilbekin to make a basket; he wouldn’t. However, four or five big offensive rebounds told the rest of the tale as Florida’s determination to retain possession after missed shots became Dayton’s downfall.
As the clock ran past one minute, Dayton’s only chance was to foul and pray Florida would give up the ball from missed free throws; that didn’t happen.
In the end, it was four straight Wilbekin free throws that sealed the game, the region and the Gators’ Final Four dreams.
As the buzzer went off, the party ensued on the Florida bench, deservingly so.
Patric Young ended the game with 12 points and six rebounds and Will Yeguete added another four and seven. Casey Prather mirrored Yeguete’s performance with six points and seven rebounds of his own while Michael Frazier II had 10 points and was 2-for-5 from beyond the arc.
“Well, the first thing that came to my mind was disbelief. It still hasn’t hit me that we’re going to be one of the Final Four teams in the country to still play for an opportunity at the championship,” Young said. “Next thing that came to my mind was just to go down on one knee and thank God, just thank Him for allowing us, this team, just to fight through adversity, do it the right way and come out on top, be here.”
For this team, these four seniors and all they had been through throughout their entire four years at the University of Florida, they had achieved their second-to-last goal of the season and their collegiate careers — the Final Four in Dallas, Texas.