GAME NOTES: The NCAA Tournament's No. 1 overall seed clashes with this year's biggest Cinderella story in the South Region Final on Saturday evening, as the top-seeded Florida Gators take on the 11th-seeded Dayton Flyers at FedExForum.
Dayton's unlikely run to the Elite Eight began in thrilling fashion in the opening matchup of the second round on March 20, as it used a last-second bucket to push past No. 6 seed Ohio State, 60-59. It logged another upset in the third round by defeating third-seeded Syracuse, 55-53, only to have its least challenging contest in the Sweet 16, that being an 82-72 win over Stanford on Thursday. This marks the third Elite Eight appearance for the Flyers all-time, with their last coming back in 1984.
As the top overall seed, Florida's surge to the Elite Eight has hardly come as a surprise, but that hasn't made it any less impressive. It took care of business against a pesky 16th-seeded Albany in the second round (67-55), dominated ninth-seeded Pittsburgh in the third round (61-45), and ousted fourth-seeded and red-hot UCLA in the regional semifinals (79-68). The Gators, who are riding a program-record 29-game winning streak, are the only team in the nation to qualify for the Elite Eight in four consecutive seasons, although they have not moved on to the Final Four since winning back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007.
The Flyers and the Gators are meeting for the first time in history, and a date in the Final Four awaits the winner.
Trailing by one midway through the first half of their Sweet 16 matchup with Stanford, Dayton surged ahead with a 16-4 run and barely broke a sweat the rest of the way, as they outshot the Cardinal from the field in the 10-point victory (.483 to .379). Pacing four players in double figures was Jordan Sibert, who poured in 18 points on 4-of-9 shooting from 3-point range. Devin Oliver and Kendall Pollard each tallied 12 points, while Matt Kavanaugh added 10 points to the winning effort.
On the season, Dayton has displayed impressive balance at both ends of the court. The squad averages 72.5 ppg on 46.5 percent field goal efficiency (including 37.5 percent from beyond the arc), and its offensive production is usually good enough to support a solid defensive approach (.437, 67.1 ppg). Sibert paces the unit with 12.5 ppg, having drained 83 3-pointers at a 43 percent clip. Oliver (11.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and Dyshawn Pierre (11.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg) are active in the rebounding battle, while Vee Sanford narrowly misses the double-digit scorer's club with 9.7 ppg.
The Gators saw their double-digit lead in the second half shrink to just one point with 10 minutes to play against UCLA, but they rebounded by going on a 10-0 run to create separation en route to the 11-point victory. The squad shot 50 percent from the field while holding the potent Bruins to just 3-of-18 shooting from 3-point range. Michael Frazier put up 19 points on 5-of-8 from beyond the arc, Scottie Wilbekin netted 13 points and Casey Prather and Dorian Finney-Smith contributed 12 and 10 points, respectively.
Florida's offensive output this season has been impressive, as it converts better than 46 percent of its total shots in putting up just over 70 ppg, but the primary reason for its overwhelming success has been due to its elite team defense, which ranks third in the nation in permitting a mere 57.8 ppg, with both Wilbekin (13.1 ppg) and Patric Young (10.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg) being named to the SEC All-Defensive Team. Prather (14.0 ppg) shoots a lofty 60.7 percent from the field, Frazier (12.7 ppg) has made 110 long-range buckets at a 44.9 percent rate, and Finney-Smith (9.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg) brings an added presence to the paint.
Dayton has nothing to lose in this matchup, and this season will be considered an overwhelming success regardless of the outcome, and that lack of pressure could result in some inspired play by the Flyers. Florida, however, is a team on a mission, and with the Gators and their prolonged dominance showing no sign of slowing down, expect this to be the midnight hour of UD's Cinderella campaign.
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