MEMPHIS, Tenn.– In the Florida locker room after its 62-52 win over the Dayton Flyers there was music and dancing; even a few soaked towels on the floor from what may have been a Gatorade bath before the media entered. In other words, they partied, they enjoyed the moment, the Florida basketball team headed to the Final Four for the fifth time in school history. Bill Donovan Jr. is sitting in the corner, being chastised by forward Dorian Finney-Smith for saying he isn’t planning to do anything when the team gets back to Gainesville. A threat is made to pull him out of his bed to come hangout if that’s what it takes.
Freshman Chris Walker names a popular Gainesville spot he’ll be headed to as soon as the group gets home. Senior Will Yeguete is in the middle of an interview when a manager reaches over the throng of media to drape one of the recently snipped FedEx Forum nets around his neck, he continues without flinching adorned with his new white necklace.
This is their night, for 24 hours before the work begins again they can enjoy what they did inside the lines. The process, the next game mentality, can be put aside for just one night to reflect on what they did, the game they won and the goal they’ve reached.
Florida started fast, hitting five of its first nine shots from the field, jumping out to a six-point lead through the first seven minutes. Then they went cold, a stretch a few minutes later included going 1-7 from the field and allowed the Flyers to get back into it. With 3:32 remaining in the half up only one, someone needed a jumpstart. Dayton wasn’t shooting the lights out of the gym on its end either; it was a moment that needed someone to take control. Of course SEC player of the year and the South regional’s Most Outstanding Player Scottie Wilbekin was there to do so, hitting three shots and two free throws down the stretch to help send Florida into the break with a 14-point lead on a 14-1 run.
Wilbekin had the ball at the top of the key right before time expired as head coach Billy Donovan attempted to relay a play to him. It looked like he didn’t understand or couldn’t hear his coach, because he simply rose up and drained a three-pointer with two seconds to go before the intermission. Donovan explained what really happened after the game.
“I think he liked the matchup,” Donovan said. “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.”
Coming out of the break Florida looked like it had dished out the haymaker punch, a Patric Young layup gave UF a 17-point lead with 11:25 remaining. Surely Florida would coast to the finish; surely it wouldn’t blow another double-digit Elite Eight lead like it did in 2011 and 2012.
Then, again, the shots stopped falling. They hit one in the final 10:41 of the game, all told they went 1-15 to end the game. That should have been the epitaph on the headstone that was the 2014 Florida basketball team. That lack of production kills teams in March, but it didn’t on this Saturday evening. The Flyers were able to get their deficit within 10 but that was it thanks in large part to missed shots of their own, excellent Florida defense and a bullish performance on the offensive glass by the Gators. UF raked in seven offensive rebounds in the final 6:08 including four on one possession, eating up valuable clock and playing keepaway with the 11 seed. They hit free throws — six in all during their offensive drought from the field to end the game — and were able to keep the Flyers at bay.
“It was finding other ways to manufacture a way to win,” Donovan said. “For us, it was rebounding the free‑throw line. They made three more threes than we did. We didn’t take a lot. They made eight. But 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.”
The clock struck zero and the hugs began, Florida had finally gotten the Elite Eight monkey off its back.
Assistant coach John Pelphrey shared a long hug with his wife, fellow assistant Matt McCall cradled his infant in his arms soaking in the moment, assistant Rashon Burno wants to know if his young son can get up the ladder to cut the net. Yeguete scoops the tyke in his arms and they ascend together.
Walker is greeted with chants of “one more year” a plea from fans to get him to stay in school as he heads up the ladder, Senior Patric Young has his usual mob of reporters around him, and Wilbekin cradles the regional championship trophy like it’s a child of his own while doing interviews.
After the on-court celebration ended, sophomore DeVon Walker sits in a corner of the locker room by himself, he’s finding it all difficult to take in, a surreal ride. That’s probably because until a change of heart, he wasn’t supposed to be a member of this team. Through the school’s website he announced his transfer, the bags were packed but he reversed course and decided to stay. Nearly 11 months later he sits after Florida’s win trying to process things.
“Man, I don’t — this is crazy to think, I don’t know what was going through my head when I was about to leave and all that, I’m glad I didn’t and I thank God for all that,” Walker said. “This whole season is like — I love these guys it’s never been like this before on a team, and I don’t know if it ever will be again and that’s why we’re trying to enjoy the moment. What we have here is special man. I keep trying to find words but it’s feelings and stuff that you just can’t explain.”
He was part of a bench that Florida needed in this game, a rotation 10-deep to spell Florida’s starters and match a Dayton squad that put 13 players on the floor in total. His contribution was only eight minutes and two rebounds, but they were necessary.
They all played a part and they all reviled in their success. By Sunday night they will be one of only four teams left standing in college basketball and have a date in one of America’s sporting palaces for a shot at the ultimate prize: a national championship.
One wonders how DeVon would process attaining that achievement.