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.
The scrappy Flyers fought top-seeded Florida until the final minutes Saturday 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 to the Gators in the South Regional. 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. VCU was the last to accomplish it in 2011. But Florida’s stifling defense — and 23 points by Gators’ 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 within 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 3-point range. Kavanaugh had six points and eight rebounds. Jordan Sibert, who led the Flyers with 18 points in a Sweet 16 victory against Stanford on Thursday, was held scoreless.
Vee Sanford said the loss hurts, but there was no reason to be ashamed about Saturday’s performance.
“I’m proud of my teammates for getting here,” Sanford said. “I feel like we’ve left a legacy.”
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 in 2013 — before breaking through with the win 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 3-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 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 after Scoochie Smith’s 3-pointer.
But the rollicking underdog party ended in a hurry. Wilbekin simply wasn’t going to let it happen.
The Gators’ 6-2 guard scored 11 points to help Florida end the half on a 19-3 run. 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 3-pointer that swished through the net and gave the Gators a 38-24 halftime lead.
A jubilant Wilbekin dashed off the court as Dayton’s suddenly silent crowd stared in disbelief.
The Flyers responded with back-to-back 3-pointers early in the second half and managed to keep things fairly close down the stretch. Pierre’s layup pulled Dayton within 58-50 with 3:55 remaining, but the Flyers didn’t score again until 17 seconds remained and Florida had the game in hand.
“When you’re playing the No. 1 team in the nation you have to play nearly flawless basketball,” Kavanaugh said.
Dayton couldn’t do it, but Miller said the program’s brilliant March run was still worth celebrating. The Flyers upset Ohio State, Syracuse and Stanford before falling to the Gators.
“A lot of sacrifice went into it,” Miller said. “But more importantly, these guys will go down in the history books.”