ORLANDO, Fla. – The last time Florida coach Billy Donovan reached college basketball’s mountaintop, his roster was littered with future NBA draft picks.
This season, Florida doesn’t even have a can’t-miss NBA prospect, but the Gators are headed back to the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight season after defeating No. 9 seed Pittsburgh 61-45 in a round-of-32 game of the South Region at Amway Center on Saturday.
The Gators, the NCAA tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, won their 28th consecutive game by doing what they’ve done all season: outhustling, outrebounding and out-defending opponents.
After a sluggish first half, Florida’s defense caused Pitt to miss 10 of its first 11 shots in the second. By the time Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin chased down a loose ball near half court to set up Casey Prather’s alley-oop pass to Patric Young for a dunk to make it 34-24 with about 16 minutes to go, the Panthers were all but cooked.
“They’re obviously a very good team, and the most physical team we’ve played all year long,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “They beat us on the glass and beat us to loose balls, and we’ve got to give them credit.”
The Gators didn’t have much of a choice. With Young missing several close looks and guard Michael Frazier II struggling to knock down 3-pointers, UF turned up its defensive intensity and made life miserable for the Panthers. Pitt shot only 37.3 percent from the floor, including 4-for-17 on 3-pointers.
“Our shots weren’t falling,” Young said. “Michael Frazier had a lot of open looks, and I had a lot of open, five-foot hooks that didn’t fall. I knew I could affect the game in so many other ways. If the shots aren’t falling, I’m not going to be the kind of guy to hang my head. I knew I had to lead the team and find other ways to contribute.”
Young finished with 8 points, 9 rebounds and 4 blocked shots, and he largely outplayed Pitt forward Talib Zanna, who referred to Young as a “dirty player” in a news conference Friday.
“The coaches were challenging us, and they made me watch a lot of film of Zanna,” Young said. “He’s a great player and great rebounder, but I knew I could step up to the challenge. I’m a dirty player, so I just wanted to go out and scrap and fight and claw for rebounds. I know I had more than eight rebounds today. I want to go back and look.”
Once Florida’s shots finally started falling with about 11 minutes to go, the Panthers didn’t have a chance of coming back. The Gators scored on five straight possessions to make it 47-33 with 7:44 remaining, and later, Wilbekin scored eight straight points for UF to make it 57-45. Wilbekin scored 21 points on 9-for-15 shooting, and shot 5-for-6 with 10 seconds or less left on the shot clock.
“When the shot clock was winding down, you could see in Scottie’s eyes that he wanted the ball and was going to create something,” Young said.
Defense and effort are attributes Donovan has been preaching to his team all season. Before every game, Donovan tries to find an analogy or metaphor to share with his team.
Before the Gators took the floor against Pittsburgh, and two nights after they struggled in a closer-than-expected 67-55 victory over No. 16 seed Albany, he talked to his players about not being satisfied with their No. 1 ranking.
“He told us that if there were 100 people who decided to climb Mount Everest, all of them will probably reach the halfway point, where they can get water and oxygen,” Young said. “But then he asked us what percentage of them would stop at the relaxation point and not continue the climb. He said it’s about 20 percent. He said, ‘Let’s not be fat and happy about going 18-0 in the SEC and reaching the Sweet 16.’ He told us to keep climbing for the summit.”
Donovan said he wanted his players to remember the things that got them to this point. He didn’t see the hustle and desire in their opening game against Albany.
“I saw things inside of our team that I just did not like,” Donovan said. “There was nothing bad, like in terms of bad attitudes or guys having a problem with one another. There was just this frustration, personal expectation, and the game not going the way they wanted it to go. That’s not who we’ve been. I just wanted to make sure they understood that and we got back to who we were.”
The Gators are halfway toward reaching the Final Four, but their work is far from over. Florida will play the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 4 seed UCLA and No. 12 seed Stephen F. Austin in the South Region semifinals in Memphis, Tenn., on Thursday.
“We’re not done,” Young said. “I’m not happy. I’m happy we’re still playing, but I’m not going to say I’m happy and satisfied until we reach our goal. I’m not going to say it’s going to be a failure if we fall short, but we can’t allow a team to take it away from us.”