Sweet win for No. 1 Gators
Published: Saturday, March 22, 2014 at 2:22 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 22, 2014 at 8:13 p.m.
ORLANDO — Before top seed Florida’s eventual 61-45 win Saturday over nine seed Pittsburgh, Florida coach Billy Donovan wrote some keys to the game on the bulletin board.
Who: Florida vs. UCLA-Stephen F. Austin winner
When: Thursday, TBD
Where: Memphis, Tenn.
Tickets: Can be purchased at www.gatorzone.com/tickets or by calling 352-375-4683 ext. 6800 or at the Gator Ticket Office at Gate 1 of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Students can begin making ticket orders via www.gatorzone.com/students at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
The overriding theme? Energy.
“That’s the key for us, every single day, loose balls, 50-50 balls out there, going out there, rebounding well,” Florida senior center Patric Young said. “Just having energy and getting energy points.”
Florida reaching the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive season was all about hustle, whether it was senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin leaping to save a loose ball or senior forward Will Yeguete’s behind-the-back pass to save another errant pass from going out of bounds. The top-ranked Gators (34-2) played with the desperation of a lower seed before 18,512 at the Amway Center to pick up their 28th straight win and move on to a date with either UCLA or Stephen F. Austin on Thursday in Memphis.
“We just wanted to come out and not let them play harder than us,” Wilbekin said.
Florida scored 16 points off 11 Pittsburgh turnovers, outrebounded the Panthers 38-31 and grabbed 14 offensive rebounds. Wilbekin led the Gators with 21 points, including eight straight points on four straight driving baskets during a game-deciding 8-4 run in the closing minutes. But one of those baskets would not have happened had sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith not followed up his own missed shot with an offensive rebound with 2:02 left.
That allowed the Gators to bleed 29 more seconds off the clock before Wilbekin’s drive put the Gators ahead 57-45 with 1:33 remaining.
Florida proved to be the more physical team. Young finished with seven points, eight rebounds and four blocked shots and felt like he may have been shortchanged.
“I know I had more than eight,” Young said. “I want to go back and look at the film because I was all over the boards today. But I was just glad I could help my team win.”
On Friday, Young said the coaching staff challenged him by showing him tape of Pittsburgh fifth-year senior Talib Zanna. Young ended up holding Zanna to a modest 10 points and six rebounds.
“The coaches were telling me how good a rebounder he was, and I’m like, ‘Man, he’s no Jarnell Stokes, he’s not Kenneth Faried’,” Young said. “If you are showing me film on those guys, I might be scratching my head. Of course, he’s a great player, great rebounder, but I just knew I could step up to the challenge and really compete today.”
UF’s physicality and defense allowed the Gators to overcome a 40.7-percent shooting day from the floor and 25-percent shooting day from 3-point range (5-of-20). Florida sophomore guard Michael Frazier II added 10 points for the Gators, but was just 2-of-9 from 3-point range. After the game, Frazier joked “it will be good to get out of this gym” after going a combined 3-of-13 from 3-point range against Albany and Pittsburgh (26-10).
“I thought we had some very, very good looks,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
But on the defensive end of the floor, Florida stayed connected on the defensive end, holding Pittsburgh to 37.3 percent from the floor. It was the eighth time this season the Gators have held an opponent under 50 points.
“They’re obviously a very good team, the most physical team we’ve played all season long,” Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said. “They beat us on the glass and they beat us to the loose balls, and we got to give them credit.”
Donovan said the Gators “got back to their identity” after an uninspired effort against 16th seed Albany on Thursday.
“As a coach, you always want to play to your identity and who you’ve been and what you’ve been the entire year,” Donovan said.
With a 12:15 p.m. tip time, the teams played close to the vest early. On Pittsburgh’s offensive sets, the Panthers played deep into each offensive possession, draining the shot clock. Neither team led by more than five points in a first half that featured three ties and nine lead changes.
Frazier hit a 3-pointer with 4:11 left in the first half to extend UF’s lead to 20-15, but the Panthers answered by cutting Florida’s lead to 24-22 with eight seconds left on a baseline jumper by Michael Young.
The Panthers still had four fouls to give in the closing seconds, but inexplicably, after fouling Wilbekin with five seconds left in the first half, allowed Wilbekin to spring free for a running 3-pointer that extended UF’s lead to 27-22 at halftime.
The Gators carried that momentum into the second half. Florida started it with a 7-2 run, extending the lead to 34-24 on an inside dunk from Young.
“Getting off to a good start was important because if you look at the way Pitt got off against Colorado, they really did a great job defensively creating turnovers, getting out on the break and really opened the game up the first eight minutes of the game,” Donovan said. “You don’t want to get down 8, 10, 12 points in the game and have to play catch-up.”
Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or email@example.com. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.
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