March Madness in the form of the NCAA Men's Basketball South Regional Championship in Memphis turned into a coronation for the Florida Gators.
The nation's No. 1 ranked team coming into the tournament, Florida – the SEC regular season and tournament champions – beat back the Dayton Flyers 62-52 at the FedExForum on Saturday.
On Sunday, the Gators learned they would take on UConn of the American Athletic Conference in a battle to see which of the teams will get to play for the national championship on April 7th in East Texas. In the other national seminal, Kentucky will take Wisconsin.
The Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau estimated that about 7,500 guests would pile into the Bluff City during the South Regional Championship. While the Memphis Grizzlies took to the road to make way for the tourney, four teams moved into Memphis to contend at the FedExForum for the right to go to the Final Four.
During the opening round of games in the South Regional Sweet 16 last Thursday, Dayton knocked off the Stanford Cardinal (82-72), with high-profile Stanford alum Condoleezza Rice and Richard Sherman of the SuperBowl champions Seattle Seahawk in the crowd. The Gators then ended the season for the UCLA Bruins (79-68). That set up Saturday's championship tilt between Dayton and Florida.
The FedExForum was well suited for the tournament. The temporary court flooring read "MEMPHIS" on one end and "FEDEXFORUM" on the other with the University of Memphis Tigers logo. The three games were broadcasted on CBS, where more than nine million viewers tuned in to watch the games. In Memphis, 15,443 filed into the FedExForum for the championship game.
As halftime rolled around on, it was clear that the Flyers would have to do something really special to upend the Gators. Florida shot 48 percent to Dayton's 30 percent in the first half and led by 14 points (38-24).
Despite the deficit, Dayton was not giving up. The Flyers showed their tenacity down the stretch. With 5:44 left to play, sophomore forward Dyshawn Pierre hit a three-pointer to bring the game within 10 points (58-48). No player scored for the next two minutes until Pierre scored on a layup.
Both teams guarded the rims and scrambled for rebounds in the final frame. The Flyers held the Gators scoreless until senior guard Scottie Wilbekin made four free throws, the last with 38 seconds on the clock. Pierre hit the final field goal of the game.
"I thought our team got a little bit worn down with about the last five or six minutes in the game, and I think Dayton had a lot to do with that," said Gators head coach Billy Donovan.
"We were pressing, and what they do is they really space you. They force you to really run to the three-point line, and then they bring it into the paint again, and they force you to fun back out to the three-point line. I thought our guys were a little bit exhausted doing that."
Although Dayton outscored Florida's bench 16-7, Florida won the points in the paint battle overall (24-18) despite turning the ball over 15 times against Dayton's nine. The Gators scored 13 second-chance points to the Flyers' one. Dayton's 52 points against Florida marked its lowest scoring game this season.
Wilbekin (23 points, three assists and three steals) was named the South Regional Most Outstanding Player.
"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 we did the same."
Pierre scored a team high 18 points for the Flyers followed by Devin Oliver with 12 points.
"Dyshawn (Pierre) was terrific," said Dayton's head coach Archie Miller. "In our darkest, sort of gloomiest period out there, we needed to find somebody that could kind of get us going. I thought we had a favorable matchup for him inside. We were able to get him the ball two or three times in a row, and he was able to capitalize. "
Florida will make its fifth trip to the Final Four and first since 2007. The win against Dayton marked a 30-game win streak.