Gators move on to the Sweet 16

Gators move on to the Sweet 16

Pittsburgh matched Florida's effort in the first half before Billy Donovan took a timeout with five seconds left. The timeout allowed Scottie Wilbekin to reset, hitting a running three-pointer as time expired to push the Gators' halftime lead to five. He carried that momentum into the second half, leading Florida to its fourth straight Sweet 16 appearance after a 61-45 win over the Panthers.

It was the 118th career win for the Florida senior class, giving them sole possession of first place in program history after passing the 2009 class. It was also Florida's 28th straight win this season.

"We knew it was going to be a challenging, physical basketball game," Billy Donovan said. "I was proud of the way our guys came out and responded from our game on Thursday."

When the Gators needed a basket, it was Scottie Wilbekin that provided it. The three-pointer before the half shifted the momentum, but down the stretch in the second half, the senior point guard was there whenever Pittsburgh tried to make a run.

Wilbekin scored 13 of Florida's final 19 points, including a span where he scored 11 of the team's previous 13 points. He made his damage in the lane, penetrating past the aggressive Pittsburgh big men who tried to hedge on screens and slow the point guard down. Instead, he got into the paint and passed to an open big man for a dunk or hung in the air to finish off the glass.

But he swears the final 10 minutes of the second half wasn't an intentional effort on his part to take over the game.

"It just happened," Wilbekin said. Our offense isn't really designed for one player to do something. The ball was in my hands late in the clock and I was able to get down the lane. We did a good job getting spacing, so I was able to finish the play."

Wilbekin answered every Pittsburgh run. Panthers center Talib Zanna made a layup to cut the Florida lead to eight points with 5:33 remaining. Wilbekin hit back-to-back jumpers within a span of 51 seconds to push the lead back to 12 points and erase any hope of a comeback.

The Florida seniors combined to score 28 of the team's 34 points in the second half.

"As the game wore on, we were able to make their big guys late to get out (on the perimeter) like they normally do. Scottie was able to turn the corner, Kasey Hill was able to turn the corner. We were able to get down the lane. That's one of those things we tried. They're very difficult to score against when you post feed from the wing or go side-to-side. You've got to try to go down the lane."

The Florida defense returned to its suffocating pace after a lull against Albany on Thursday. The Gators didn't force a turnover in the first 12 minutes of the game, and Pittsburgh took a 15-13 lead during that team. Florida forced 11 turnovers over the final 28 minutes, creating havoc with its press and speeding the Pittsburgh offense up to a level it wasn't comfortable.

Pittsburgh shot 37.3 percent (19-51) on the day. The Panthers were averaging 72.6 points on the season heading into Saturday. The Gators held them to 45 points.

Panthers leading scorer Lamar Patterson came into Saturday averaging 17.4 points. He only scored eight points against Florida with seven points coming in the first half.

"We put them in late clock situations," Donovan said. "That was a big key for us."

The Gators will play on Thursday in Memphis, aiming to earn their fourth straight appearance in the Elite Eight. Florida will play the winner of Stephen F. Austin and UCLA, which will take place on Sunday night.

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