Dave George: Florida Gators, Scottie Wilbekin show grit in holding off Dayton, ending Elite Eight skid

With the Final Four all but in their grasp Saturday night, the Florida Gators simply stopped scoring, going without a bucket for the final six minutes of a game that the 11th-seeded Dayton Flyers were frantic to steal.

It’s happened just this way to some of Billy Donovan’s best teams the last three seasons, and at the same frightening cliff, where half of every year’s Elite Eight field gets suddenly and cruelly pushed right out of sight.

This time, however, Scottie Wilbekin stopped the panic of a potential Dayton comeback in the closing minutes and hammered home a 62-52 victory, doing it not with two points but with two words.

“Calm down,” shouted the point guard savant as he reset the Gators’ offense around the three-minute mark, when a 17-point lead had been whittled to eight, and just in case nobody heard that over the thunder of thousands chanting “Let’s go, Flyers,” Wilbekin slowly waved up and down the arm that wasn’t busy dribbling.

It got better after that, so much better that Wilbekin and the rest of Florida’s well-schooled teammates were soon standing on a makeshift stage on the FedEx Forum court, wearing South Region championship caps backwards and dancing that impromptu March Madness dance that says we were never worried, ya’ll. Never worried at all.

The Gators are back in the Final Four for the first time since the back-to-back national championship teams of 2006 and 2007 because their defense and their hustle never hit a dead end, no matter what’s going on with the offense.

Incredibly, Florida scored just five field goals in the second half, with two of them being 3-point baskets by Wilbekin and Michael Frazier II. That’s exactly the kind of stagnation that beat the Gators at the Elite Eight round each of the last three seasons, against Butler, Louisville and Michigan in order.

Does this mean they’ll always have enough to get by, and more specifically does it mean they’ve got enough to beat either Michigan State or Connecticut in next Saturday’s national semifinals?

No, but it signifies that they’re tougher than any team Billy’s put together since the days of Al Horford and Joakim Noah. That, and the confidence of a winning streak that has stretched 30 games long, is more than any other Final Four team has going for it.

“I think those experiences maybe helped us be a better team this year than maybe we would have been if we’d gotten to a couple of Final Fours earlier with these guys,” Donovan said.

“I’ve always looked at this as a six-game tournament. That’s what it is. We have nice names for it, Elite Eight, Sweet 16 and Final Four, but at the end of the day you want to keep playing. I think from a perception standpoint, that’s what the human nature part of it was. I told our guys we need to battle this. You got to three Elite Eights and you’re back here. The past has nothing to do with it. It’s trying to move on and advance.”

What does have something to do with, of course, is who are the other teams on the court. As a reward for a great season, Florida drew Albany in its tournament opener, which is as close to a cupcake as March can cook up. Then came Pittsburgh and UCLA, two teams that aren’t in the class of some teams in other regions, particularly the monster Midwest. Next came Dayton, a sensational unit of hustlers and believers who upset Ohio State and Syracuse but really didn’t have the beef to bully Florida.

You could see that in Saturday’s second half, when the Flyers threw in four 3-pointers to draw the game closer but couldn’t get their hands on anything else. That’s because the Gators were grabbing eight offensive rebounds to none for Dayton, and each time Will Yeguete or Dorian Finney-Smith or Casey Prather pulled one of those down, they cycled them back out top to burn another 30 seconds off the clock.

The teams that are coming in the Final Four are strong enough to stop that kind of domination. The Gators will have to be better than they’ve been so far if they’re going to cut down the nets again like they did Saturday in Memphis.

For now, though, they’ve got a real leader in Wilbekin, who matched his season high of 23 points on Saturday. They’ve got a tight knot of veterans who will follow him into that Texas tornado, too.

“Throughout the season, each game we’ve played has just gotten more and more fun,” said Wilbekin, whose 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer was a real buzzkill for Dayton’s loud crowd. “I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had in my life right now.”

Calm down? Yeah, sure, but not until next Saturday, when it’s time for the Florida Gators to focus once more on the only goal that matters to them, and one that’s finally in reach.