By Edgar Thompson Orlando Sentinel
ORLANDO, Fla. — With the Sweet 16 on the line and the Pittsburgh Panthers closing ground, the Florida Gators’ game plan was written all over point guard Scottie Wilbekin’s face.
Dorian Finney-Smith had seen the look before: Wilbekin was in a zone.
“He was just so locked in, you could just see it on his face,” Finney-Smith said. “He wanted to win so bad.”
Wilbekin had plenty of help during the top-seeded Gators’ 61-45 win over ninth-seeded Pitt on Saturday in front of announced crowd of 18,512 fans at Amway Center.
All day, the Gators’ out-hustled and out-muscled the physical Panthers, a longtime member of the rough-and-tumble Big East now in their first season in the ACC.
But Wilbekin almost single-handedly carried UF to the finish line and into the Southeast Regional in Memphis. The 6-foot-2 senior closed with an offensive flourish, delivering a 21-point performance that also included a buzzer-beating 3-pointer at the half.
“When you have a guy like that you just give him the ball and move out of his way,” shooting guard Michael Frazier II. “He was hot. He gave us an offensive boost.
“We needed it.”
A 3-pointer by Wilbekin gave the Gators (34-2) a 45-31 lead with 8:24 remaining, but the Panthers (26-10) responded with an 8-2 run, setting the stage for a fight to the finish.
Instead, Wilbekin scored his team’s next four baskets — each of them late in the 35-second shot clock. The sequence included three hard drives to the basket and a teardrop jumper for Wilbekin, who scored six of his team’s final eight field goals.
Wilbekin, a career 6.4-point-a-game scorer, is best known as a lockdown defender who sets the tone for the Gators’ defense that allows the third fewest points in college basketball.
But Finney-Smith said there are days in practice when Wilbekin gets it going like he did against Pitt.
“When he gets in that mode, it’s hard to stop him,” Finney-Smith said.
When the Gators have the mind-set they brought to Saturday’s game, they are impossible to stop, too.
Florida slept-walked its way through its opening game Thursday against Albany. A similar performance would not suffice against a Pitt team with a win earlier this season against North Carolina and a three-point loss to No. 1 seed Virginia in the ACC Tournament.
The Gators responded with the kind of high-effort, high-energy performance that has been their trademark time and again during UF’s school-record 28-game win streak.
Florida players seemed to beat the Panthers to every loose ball, finished with a 14-10 offensive rebounding edge and forced 11 turnovers two days after Pitt committed just three during a rout of Colorado.
“We came out and took it as a challenge to play with more passion,” Finney-Smith said. “That’s stuff you can control. We can’t control the ball going in, but we can control the defense and how hard we play.”
Wilbekin finished 9 of 15 shooting and senior forward Will Yeguete was 4 of 5 for eight points, but the rest of the Gators were 12 of 38 (31.6 percent).
But six Gators had at least one steal, including three by Casey Prather, and seven had at least three rebounds, led by Finney-Smith and Patric Young with eight apiece. Pitt finished 19 of 51 shooting (37.3 percent) and managed just four points during the first nine minutes of the second half.
Wilbekin, as always, played a key role on the defensive end, limiting Pitt leading scorer Lamar Patterson to eight points on 3 of 11 shooting.
Wilbekin received a well-earned rest during the game’s final minute after he banged his left knee with a Pitt player during a foray down the lane. He limped from the locker room with an ice pack on the knee, but said, “I’ll be fine.”
On Sunday, though, Wilbekin is sure to feel each of 32 minutes he played against Pitt. A trip to the Sweet 16 is sure ease the pain.
“You’ve got to understand, with what he did … he was worn out,” coach Billy Donovan said. “He was great on both ends of the floor.”