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March 22, 2014

Notebook: Gators advance to Sweet 16

ORLANDO, Fla. - The top-seeded Gators waved farewell to the Sunshine State in style Saturday afternoon, smothering 9th-seeded Pittsburgh into submission for a 61-45 victory in front of a sellout, pro-Gators crowd inside the Amway Center.

"How sweet it is," assistant coach Matt McCall shouted in the locker room. Florida won its 28th straight game, punching its fourth consecutive ticket to the Sweet 16.

The Gators, motivated by a lackluster effort against 16-seeded Albany, responded with a supercharged defensive performance.

The Panthers mustered just 22 points in the first half and shot just 37 percent on the afternoon, as Florida played sublime defense featuring discipline, hustle and energy.

"We weren't going to let them to play harder than us," said senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, who starred for Florida with a game-high 21 points.

The Gators won a physical, WWW cage-match featuring minimal fouls but plenty of intense hustle battles.

Florida controlled the boards (plus-seven) and points in the paint (plus-12), and afterwards coach Billy Donovan was pleased with his team's performance.

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

Florida's press -- rendered ineffective early -- eventually wore down Pitt, who committed 11 turnovers on 10 steals.

UF will face the winner of Sunday's game between 4th-seed UCLA and 12th-seed Stephen F. Austin on Thursday in Memphis, Tenn.

Wilbekin willed Florida to victory -- scoring 13 of Florida's final 15 points -- spearheading the Gators despite a ghastly shooting performance by the rest of the team.

The SEC Player of the Year went off like he was dominating a playground game, saving Florida's clogged-toilet offense time and again.

"When you have a guy like that you just give him the ball and move out of his way," shooting guard Michael Frazier II said.

"He was hot. He gave us an offensive boost. We needed it."

Wilbekin drilled 9-of-15 shots, including four straight late, but the rest of the team combined to shoot a scary 16-for-43.

Afterwards, Frazier -- who shot just 4-for-15 in two games at Amway Arena -- admitted he's ready to see different rims.

"At this point I'm happy to get out this gym," he said. "That's the name of the game though. Some shots are going to go in. Some aren't. I took good shots tonight. I can't control whether the ball goes in or not because if I could every shot would go in."

Pitt held its last four opponents to 24.2 percent from downtown, and its strong work continued as Florida shot a measly 20 percent (5-for-20) from three-point range.

"Shots weren't falling, but we just stayed focused on the defensive side because we know that's something we can control," senior center Patric Young said.

"We can control good energy, communicating, being in the right spots. It was just there today."

The "it" was especially there for Wilbekin, who constantly bailed out the Gators with makes late in the shot-clock.

"I could just see it in his eyes when it came down to the last 10 seconds on the shot-clock, he's like, 'I'm going to create something right here,'" Young said.

A day after being labeled a "dirty player" by Panthers big-man Talib Zanna, Young did all the dirty work, dominating the offensive glass (six rebounds) and controlling the paint (three blocks) despite struggling from the field (3-for-11).

"I'm a dirty player so I played all out and scrapped and clawed and fought," Young quipped.

Florida's frontcourt -- led by Young and senior forward Will Yeguete -- neutralized Zanna, especially on the offensive glass.

"The coaches challenged us," said Young, commenting on Florida's uninspiring effort against Albany.

"The coaches made me watch a lot of film on Zanna and how good of a rebounder he was, and I was like, 'The guy is no Jarnell Stokes. He's not Kenneth Faried. If you show me film on those guys then I might be scratching my head.'"

Zanna finished with 10 points and six rebounds but his four fouls were two more than any other player in the game and Florida won the battle in the paint with plus-12 margin.

Meanwhile, Yeguete -- hampered by injuries throughout career -- played his best game in six weeks, chipping in eight points on 4-of-5 shooting while offering his usual hustle and heart.

"He's the epitome of a guy that when you look down at the stat sheet it's hard to have a level of appreciation for him," Donovan said.

"It's hard to find guys that really kind of hang their hat on being kind of a dirtywork guy, and it's hard sometimes because certainly it doesn't really give them a lot of headlines. Will's not a headline guy. But he really does a lot for our team."

Young did deliver pair of banner plays though, highlighted by a vicious, volleyball spike of a faint lay-up attempt midway through the first half.

"I hate going for help-side blocks, but I saw it and I was like, 'I'm all over that one. I just threw it out of the way,'" said an excitable Young, who stared down the CBS cameras in similar fashion to former Gators center Al Horford.

Wilbekin drained a running, one-footed 25-footer at the buzzer, changing the game's momentum right before halftime.

It never should've happened.

In a two-point contest with 3.5 seconds remaining in the first half, Florida inbounded the ball to Wilbekin behind half court and Pittsburgh didn't foul. Despite multiple fouls to give, the Panthers botched the final ticking seconds, as Wilbekin raced up the court and heaved a perfect shot.

"It's on me," said Panthers coach Jamie Dixon, who accepted responsibility while implying his team was instructed to foul.

"We didn't get it done. We didn't do what we -- I didn't get it done."

Wilbekin acknowledged he expected to get fouled.

"That's the look that I hoped for in that situation," he said. "I don't really shoot too many runner threes, but it went in, and I was pretty happy about it."

Added Donovan: "I thought for the most part the first half was really back and forth. You know, we got up by a few points, they got up by a few points, we got up by five, Patterson makes a three, cuts it to two, we got up by four. It's a twopoint game in the last position, Scottie throws a tough shot at the end of the half, we go up five, and then we slowly build a bigger lead as the game wore on there in the second half."

Pitt's 22 first-half points were the fewest Florida has allowed since Feb. 1 (Texas A&M, 17). Donovan earned his 484 career-victory, becoming the second-winningest coach in Southeastern Conference history. Florida held an opponent under 50 points for the eighth time this season, while Pitt moved to 0-4 scored less than 49 points. NFL coaches Bill Belichick (New England) and Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh) were in attendance. Belichick is longtime friends with Donovan, who joked postgame the Patriots' coach put together UF's scouting report. The Gators forced 11 turnovers after Pitt coughed the ball up just three times in its romp over Colorado on Thursday. UF's six turnovers matched a season-low.

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