MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Dayton’s Matt Kavanaugh was still sweating 15 minutes after the game ended, fresh scratches on his cheek and dejection on his face.
Kavanaugh and the rest of the scrappy Flyers fought top-seeded Florida until the final minutes last night, but the Gators were just too good.
Dayton’s dream run from No. 11 seed to the Elite Eight ended with a 62-52 loss in the South Regional final. It was the first time the Flyers had made it this far in the NCAA tournament since 1984.
“Unfortunately, we were bad in a couple of spots in the game,” Dayton coach Archie Miller said. “A lot of it had to do with Florida. I thought we competed, but at the end of the day, somebody’s got to go down.”
Dayton was trying to become the fourth 11 seed to advance to the Final Four. But Florida’s stifling defense — and 23 points by point guard Scottie Wilbekin — proved too much to overcome.
“They’re a great team,” Kavanaugh said. “You’ve got to give them credit. They just played better than us today.”
Dyshawn Pierre led Dayton (26-11) with 18 points, shooting 7 of 11 from the field. The 6-foot-6 sophomore single-handedly kept the Flyers in the game late, scoring nine straight points to pull them to 58-50 with 3:55 remaining.
Pierre also added five assists, three rebounds and two blocks.
Devin Oliver added 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting from three-point range. Kavanaugh had six points and eight rebounds.
Jordan Sibert, the transfer from Ohio State who led the Flyers with 18 points against Stanford on Thursday, went scoreless.
Florida (36-2) has won 30 straight games and advances to the fifth Final Four in program history. The Gators had lost three straight games in the Elite Eight — against Butler in 2011, Louisville in 2012 and Michigan last year — before breaking through against the Flyers.
“It’s hard to believe what these guys have done,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “It’s amazing.”
Wilbekin was 6 of 14 from the field, including 3 of 5 from three-point range. He also had three steals.
“(Dayton) didn’t give up,” Wilbekin said. “They fought through the whole 40 minutes, but we did the same.”
Patric Young added 12 points, six rebounds and four blocks. He helped the Gators outrebound Dayton 37-26. Florida grabbed four offensive rebounds in a row during a crucial possession late in the game, allowing the Gators to milk more than a minute off the clock.
The thousands of Dayton fans who flocked to the FedExForum were loud at the beginning of the evening and downright deafening when the Flyers pulled ahead 21-19 with 6:58 remaining in the first half.
But the rollicking underdog party ended in a hurry. Wilbekin simply wasn’t going to let it happen.
He scored 11 points to help Florida end the half on a 19-3 run. Wilbekin, the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, calmly dribbled the ball on the final possession — slowly rocking back and forth while surveying the court — before pulling up for a long three-pointer that swished through the net and gave the Gators a 38-24 halftime lead.
Dayton’s suddenly silent crowd stared in disbelief.
The Flyers responded with back-to-back three-pointers early in the second half and managed to keep things fairly close down the stretch. Pierre’s layup pulled Dayton to 58-50, but the Flyers didn’t score again until 17 seconds remained.