ORLANDO, Fla. – The sequence that fairly accurately describes how Florida managed to become a No. 1 overall seed with no surefire NBA players in its starting lineup took place early in Saturday’s second half.
The Gators had run their halfcourt offense perfectly, hanging up defenders on screens until sharpshooter Michael Frazier stood wide open for a baseline three-pointer. Frazier, who rarely misses such gimmes, missed. Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin thought he had the rebound, but a Pittsburgh player slapped it away and the Panthers took off on a fast break. Instead of sulking over his rotten luck and allowing Pittsburgh to sprint for a quick basket, Wilbekin tracked down the ball and stole it back along the left sideline. Casey Prather, another of Florida’s four senior starters, saw his classmate flying out of bounds and signaled for the ball while center Patric Young, yet another senior, sprinted back toward the offensive end. Wilbekin flung the ball to Prather, who took off toward the basket and lofted a perfect alley-oop for Young, who slammed the ball to give Florida a 10-point lead.
When the Gators are engaged – not as disinterested as they seemed in a too-close win against No. 16 seed Albany on Thursday – they’re relentless. They swarm. Then they run their offense, and no matter what happens around the basket, they swarm again. Head coach Billy Donovan makes them practice that way, valuing sprinting, transition pressure and suffocating half-court defense over baskets. Donovan’s reasoning? If they do the first three correctly, the fourth will come. Florida did that perfectly in Saturday’s 61-45 win against Pittsburgh to become the first team to lock up a Sweet 16 spot. The Gators scored 16 points off 11 turnovers and held the Panthers to 37.3 percent shooting.
Florida forced Pittsburgh to work hard for shots, and for much of the first half, the Panthers were up to the challenge. Even after some uncomfortably close defense for 30 seconds a possession, Pittsburgh created decent shots. It would have trailed by two at the half if its players had used the two fouls they had to give instead of allowing Wilbekin to run free and make a three-pointer at the buzzer. After a layup by Talib Zanna to open the second half, 10 consecutive Panthers possessions ended with either a missed shot or a turnover. That allowed the Gators to open an eight-point lead that they would stretch to the 16-point final margin.
Wilbekin led Florida with 21 points, and Frazier added 10. Zanna led Pittsburgh with 10. Florida advances to face the winner of Sunday’s UCLA-Stephen F. Austin game on Thursday in Memphis, Tenn. If the Gators play like they did against Albany, they might go home. If they play like they did against Pittsburgh, they should be headed for their fourth consecutive Elite Eight. [si_video id="video_FD88D19A-C614-92AE-06AA-9D434B36B09C" height="500"]