The top-seeded Florida Gators have advanced to the Sweet 16 of the 2014 NCAA tournament after beating the No. 9 seed Pittsburgh Panthers, 61-45, in a third-round matchup on Saturday afternoon.
It was a tough battle in the South region of the bracket, but ultimately UF prevailed behind a strong defensive effort. The Gators held the Panthers to just 37.3 percent field-goal shooting and 23.5 percent from three.
Florida also out-rebounded (38 to 31), blocked more shots (five to two), created more takeaways (10 steals to four) and took better care of the ball (six turnovers to 11) compared to the underdog.
Gators star senior guard Scottie Wilbekin played the role of hero for the victors, dropping a game-high 21 points on 9-of-15 shooting, plus added three rebounds, two assists and two steals on the afternoon.
Scottie Wilbekin has solid day from field in Florida's win over Pitt. pic.twitter.com/T6yabNPMPJ— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 22, 2014
UF simply played harder at times, as evidenced by this highlight of a defender chasing down a loose ball and whipping it behind his back to a teammate for an easy basket:
Jon Solomon of The Birmingham News believes that the Gators’ hustle is what made a big difference for them at times during this game and also why they are such a great team in 2013-14:
Another absurd hustle play by Gators. Those plays set them apart.— Jon Solomon (@jonsol) March 22, 2014
Kevin Brockway of The Gainesville Sun concurred with that sentiment, noting that the team was playing with more heart compared to its second-round contest with Albany:
Florida's ability to get to 50-50 balls, grab offensive rebounds has been key to this game. Not playing entitled like they did v. Albany.— Kevin Brockway (@gatorhoops) March 22, 2014
The Gators were more disciplined in this Round 3 matchup, committing just seven fouls compared to the Panthers’ 12. Pittsburgh went to the line just six times, while UF found itself at the charity stripe for nine attempts.
Florida was a bit shaky coming out of the gate, however, but really picked up the pace to close the first half out and never looked back. ESPN Stats & Info pointed out how the team turned it around before heading into the locker room with a 27-22 lead:
FLA in 1st half today: 1st 10 Min : 10 pts, 4-14 FG, 1-5 3-pt FG Last 10 Min: 17 pts, 7-13 FG, 3-5 3-pt FG— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 22, 2014
Jeff Borzello of CBS Sports said before the game that Pitt would need to combat Florida with a long-range attack:
Pittsburgh is going to have to knock down outside shots. Florida is going to make it a nightmare to score on the interior.— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) March 22, 2014
However, Julie Quittner noted that the Panthers were not afraid to go inside early, while the Gators seemed to be settling for jumpers:
Pitt doing a great job getting the ball inside... Gators not so much.— Julie Quittner (@JQuittner) March 22, 2014
It helped that UF’s backcourt was dominant over the first 20 minutes, especially compared to Pitt's guards, courtesy of Borzello:
Florida's starting backcourt outscoring Pittsburgh's backcourt, 14-0.— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) March 22, 2014
Both teams were patient, milking the shot clock and working the ball around to find open shots, as Jake of Blogger So Dear pointed out:
Definitely a low possession game here. Lot of shots with single digits on the shot clock.— Jake (@BloggerSoDear) March 22, 2014
It wasn’t a great game for fans of high-powered offenses, as both sides failed to reach their season averages in terms of points scored. Florida averaged 71.0 points coming into this game, while Pitt put up 72.5 points per contest.
Each team shot terribly from beyond the arc, but that didn’t stop them from hoisting up treys throughout the afternoon. UF jacked up a whopping 20 attempts, but only hit five of them. The Panthers fired off 17 attempts from long distance, connecting on a mere four of them.
Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead believes that Wilbekin's clutch-factor is a big reason the squad is overcoming poor three-point shooting during the tourney:
Florida 3-point shooting: 3-12 vs Albany 5-20 vs Pitt Fortunately, they have clutch Scott Wilbekin. More impressive everytime I see him— Jason McIntyre (@jasonrmcintyre) March 22, 2014
Despite the lack of scoring, Dick Vitale of ESPN stated that UF's defense is top-notch and that the team has a winning attitude:
Gators defense exactly what we expected. They have a winner's mentality, that is why they are ahead. Up nine with three minutes left.— Dick Vitale (@DickieV) March 22, 2014
Florida head coach Billy Donovan talked about his team's effort on Saturday, via the Miami Herald:
#Gators coach Billy Donovan: "thought our defense, especially in the second half, was really, really good"— Miami Herald Sports (@HeraldSports) March 22, 2014
#Gators coach Billy Donovan: "we didn't play to our identity on Thursday and saw things I didn't like... so we got back to who we were."— Miami Herald Sports (@HeraldSports) March 22, 2014
Now that Florida is back in the Sweet 16, let's take a look at what is next for the program.
Florida is advancing to the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive year and will be matching up with either the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks or UCLA Bruins on Thursday, March 27.
How far will Florida go in this tournament?
The Gators, the No. 1 overall seed in the entire tournament, will be projected to win against whoever their opponent may be, but should not take either team lightly. Both will present unique challenges and could easily pull off a big upset in Memphis if the favorite isn’t careful.
However, UF has proved time and again that it has what it takes to win it all during March Madness. If the team plays the way it has over the past few months—Florida hasn’t lost since Dec. 2 and currently boasts a 34-2 overall record—there should be no issues making the Elite Eight for the fourth straight season.
Head coach Billy Donovan’s senior-laden squad should be hungry to finally get over the hump and make a push to the Final Four for the first time since 2007, when the team would go on to win the second of its back-to-back championships.
This group is the favorite to raise a banner of their own, so keep an eye on the Gators as they attempt to accomplish that feat by running the table during the remainder of NCAA tournament.