Let’s just call this what it is – the stumbling block. It sounds a lot better to call it the stumbling block than it is to call it the curse, yet the way Florida’s last three seasons have come to an end, it might seem as if someone has cast a spell that has kept the Gators out of the Final Four.
If you are a Florida fan, you know all about what has happened the last three years when the Gators have advanced this far in the NCAA Tournament. And that knot in your stomach that has been twisting ever tighter since the Gators knocked off UCLA Thursday night in the Sweet 16 game doesn’t stand a chance of loosening up until sometime around 8:30 Saturday night when the clock strikes zero at the FedEx Forum in Memphis. Then and only then will we know if the #1-ranked Gators (35-2) will avoid the Elite Eight stumbling block a fourth straight year by knocking off Dayton.
This is the last shot at making the Final Four for Florida’s seniors. Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete know all about getting so close to the Final Four they can taste it only to see their hopes and dreams crushed. The Gators should have won in 2011 and 2012 when they let 11-point leads slip away in the second half. The Gators were favored to knock off Michigan last year, but this was a day when the Gators were no-shows at both ends of the court.
Here is a recap of the last three stumbling block games that ended Florida’s season:
2011, NEW ORLEANS, SOUTH REGIONAL: This was a year in which it seemed all the stars had aligned in Florida’s favor. SEC champ Florida won its Sweet 16 matchup with Brigham Young and given their size advantage, the #2-seed Gators were solid favorites to end Butler’s Cinderella run. Florida led by 10 in the first half and had a 51-40 lead in the second half when Vernon Macklin picked up his fourth foul. The Gators scored only 10 points the rest of regulation. Erving Walker, who suffered through the worst shooting night of his career (1-10 from the field and 1-7 from the 3-point line) had a chance to win the game in regulation, but his 3-ball did a victory lap instead of going down and the Gators went into overtime tied at 60-60. With the Gators trailing, 74-71, in overtime Kenny Boynton stole the ball with three seconds remaining and launched a 30-footer at the buzzer that would have sent the game into a second overtime, but the ball wouldn’t go down.
2012, PHOENIX, WEST REGIONAL: Louisville was a #4 seed and the Gators were a #7, but for the first 30 minutes, this was all Florida. Florida led 41-33 at the half and the Gators stretched it to 60-49 with 10:12 to go in the game on an Erik Murphy jumper. The next 10 minutes were a nightmare as the Gators managed only eight points, going scoreless the last 2:43 as Louisville grabbed a 72-68 come from behind win. In the final 10 minutes, the Gators went 3-13 from the field, 2-4 from the foul line and they turned the ball over three times. In the final minute of the game, the Gators were still in it but they missed five shots including consecutive 3-point attempts by Bradley Beal and Erving Walker that could have sent the game into overtime in the last 11 seconds.
2013, ARLINGTON, TX, SOUTH REGIONAL: It’s debatable what happened in this one. Either the Gators were just flattened by a Michigan team that hit on all cylinders or else they just didn’t come to play. That Florida defense that had been making people look silly all year, allowed Michigan to hit 10-19 from the 3-point line and the Florida offense, which lived and died at the 3-point line, chose this night to die. The Gators hit only 2-10. The 30-6 discrepancy from the 3-point line was the difference as Michigan won this one easily, 79-59.
It must be noted that the Gators played the Louisville and Michigan games without Yeguete, their most consistent defender, who was out with a broken foot in 2012 and a knee injury in 2013. While it’s not at all certain Yeguete’s presence could have changed what Michigan did on the perimeter last year, it certainly could have affected the outcome in 2012 when the Gators got hurt in the paint against Louisville. Yeguete would have matched nicely up with Louisville’s Chane Behanan who was the difference-maker down the stretch.
It also must be noted that no one on this Florida team started in 2011 and only Young was a starter in 2012. This season, Wilbekin and Young are the only two returning starters. Yeguete, Prather and sophomore Michael Frazier II are all in their first year as starters.
While this team is led by four seniors who are veterans of four years of wars on the court, it is a team that has its own identity that is far different from any of the past three. Unlike the last three teams that were best known for their volume 3-point shooting, this Florida team is a defense first, grind it out unit that is propelled by a will to win like we haven’t seen since the back-to-back national championship teams. That has everything to do with Florida’s record 12-2 record in games decided by eight or fewer points. And lest we forget, the only two losses – by six at Wisconsin and by one at UConn – were when the team was playing shorthanded. Scottie Wilbekin, Dorian Finney-Smith and Chris Walker were unavailable for the Wisconsin game. Kasey Hill and Walker were unavailable for the UConn game and Wilbekin missed the last five minutes of the game decided on a buzzer-beater with a sprained ankle.
Billy Donovan constantly preaches two things: stay in the moment and play to your identity. If there is reason to believe that this Florida team will beat Dayton today to get past the Elite Eight stumbling block, it is the ability to stay in the moment by treating each possession as if it is the most important of the game and by playing to their identity which is a grind it out team that saps the other team’s will to win.
If the Gators stay true to these two principles, the stumbling block will be avoided and there will be a trip to Dallas for the Final Four.