ORLANDO (AP) — Top-seeded seeded Florida played with a lot more energy and intensity this time around.
Scottie Wilbekin spearheaded the effort.
Wilbekin scored 21 points, including eight straight down the stretch, and the Gators beat Pittsburgh 61-45 in the NCAA tournament Saturday. Florida’s 28th consecutive win put it in the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive year.
Coming off a lackluster performance in its NCAA opener against Albany, Florida (34-2) vowed to play better against the Panthers (26-10).
Wilbekin surely did. He took over in the second half, scoring 11 of the team’s 13 points during a 7-minute stretch. Patric Young wasn’t too shabby, either, finishing with seven points and eight rebounds.
Michael Frazier II chipped in 10 points for the Gators. Frazier was just 2-of-9 shooting from 3-point range. Had Florida not been cold from behind the arc, the game would have been essentially over much sooner than it was. The Gators finished 5 of 20 from 3-point range, with at least five of those rimming in and out.
Florida will play either fourth-seeded UCLA or 12th-seeded Stephen F. Austin on Thursday in Memphis, Tenn. The Bruins and Lumberjacks play Sunday in San Diego.
Talib Zanna led the Panthers with 10 points, their only player in double figures.
A lot was made of the inside matchup between Young and Zanna, two ripped centers who played well Thursday.
But Wilbekin was the story in this one.
He hit a running 3-pointer at the first-half buzzer and drained a back-breaking 3 with 8:24 remaining that gave Florida its largest lead at that point, 45-31. His consecutive floaters inside 5 minutes to play were equally troublesome for Pitt.
The Panthers, who seemed focused on Young inside and Frazier out, had no answer for Wilbekin’s dribble penetration. Wilbekin was a force on the press, which helped force 11 turnovers. And when Pitt started getting tired in the second half, Wilbekin really started to dominate.
Pitt looked much better early in the game, swapping the lead and giving Florida fits on both ends of the court.
Wilbekin’s 3 at the buzzer may have been the turning point. It also was a head-scratcher. Pitt had two fouls to give, and with 5 seconds on the clock, could have fouled Wilbekin on the inbounds pass and milked the final few ticks. Instead, the Panthers let Wilbekin get a decent look that gave the Gators a 27-22 lead.
Florida carried that momentum into the second half, using a 9-0 run to create breathing room in a defensive battle that had to impress NFL coaches Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin. The Patriots and Steelers head men were on hand, with Belichick sitting behind Florida’s bench in a white Gators visor and Tomlin sitting opposite Pitt’s bench in Panthers colors.
Florida turned it up defensively with that decisive spurt, holding Pitt without a basket for more than 5½ minutes. The Panthers missed nine consecutive shots during the run. Coach Jamie Dixon’s team got back in the game a little later, but then Wilbekin took them right back out with a flurry of made shots.