Senior guard Scottie Wilbekin is quickly earning his new nickname of Scottie “Wilbuckets”.
Wilbekin took over in the second half, and helped the Gators dominate the 9th seeded Panthers of Pittsburgh in the Round of 32 NCAA Tournament on Saturday for the Gators’ 28th consecutive win. The 61-45 win put them in the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive year- the only school in the country that can make that claim.
But that doesn’t mean this team is happy with that.
No, this group of seniors wants more than simply matching what they’ve done in each of the last three years. They want to exceed what they’ve done as freshmen, sophomores and juniors, and badly enough that simple words can’t describe it. And they know that performances like the one against Albany on Thursday- and even, to some extent, like the one yesterday- aren’t going to cut it.
Thursday’s effort against Albany was lackluster and head-scratching at times, but the Gators vowed to play with more energy and intensity against Pitt, and in a lot of ways, they did. Sure enough, it was Wilbekin who spearheaded the effort. “We just wanted to come out and not let them play harder than us or not play as hard as we can,” Wilbekin said after the game. “I think we did a good job of having our energy up at the start of the game, and we played together on offense and played together on defense.”
The Gators absolutely locked down on defense, keeping Pitt to their second lowest scoring total of the year. Only Cincinnati held them to fewer than 45 points (in December at MSG), and it says a lot about the Gators to shut them down like that. Offensively, the scoring came from several sources. Wilbekin absolutely dominated in the second half, scoring eight consecutive points in a stretch. Patric Young didn’t have a bad day himself, finishing with seven points and eight rebounds, senior forward Will Yeguete added eight points of his own, and sophomore shooter Michael Frazier II chipped in 10 points.
But the game could have been over long before it was had Florida shot better from the field. In particular, Frazier was off for most of the day, shooting just 2-of-9 from 3-point range. As a team, the Gators finished 5 of 20 from 3-point range, with at least five of those rimming in and out. Had Florida not been ice-cold from behind the arc, Donovan could have cleared his bench midway through the second half.
If Wilbekin continues to play like he did against the Panthers, though, I can’t see this team falling short of playing in the championship game.
“It was good to see him come back and respond the way he did today,” coach Billy Donovan said. “I thought all the way around he played very well. … He was great on both ends of the floor because he really gives it up on the defensive end, and when you give it up like that and you’re the point guard, there’s a physical toll that your body takes over a period of time.”
Wilbekin ended up getting iced down after banging knees with a defender with under a minute to go in regulation. He got a well-deserved standing ovation as he limped off the court.
“He’s a great point guard,” Panthers forward Lamar Patterson said. “He took care of business.”
Wilbekin hit a running 3-pointer at the first-half buzzer and drained a back-breaking 3 with 8:24 remaining that gave Florida its largest lead at that point, 45-31. His consecutive floaters inside 5 minutes to play were equally troublesome for Pitt.
The Panthers, who seemed focused on Young inside and Frazier out, had no answer for Wilbekin’s dribble penetration. Wilbekin also was a force on the press, which helped force 11 turnovers and got the Panthers out of rhythm.
Wilbekin really started to dominate as Pitt steadily wore down in the second half.
“Got in the lane — constantly,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “He’s a senior, he’s a really good player, he’s been through some ups and downs, obviously, and he’s had a great finish to his career, and that’s what you hope happens to a kid that learns and gets better. I’m sure they’re proud of him and what he’s become, a local guy that’s done well.”
Pitt center Talib Zanna led the Panthers with 10 points, their only player in double figures.
A lot was made of the inside matchup between Young and Zanna, two ripped centers who played well Thursday.
Wilbekin’s best play didn’t even show up in the box score. Wilbekin saved one of the many loose balls Florida got to first, turned around and threw a strike to Casey Prather. Prather drove the lane and dropped the ball to Young for a dunk that energized the pro-Florida crowd.
Florida will face either fourth-seeded UCLA or 12th-seeded Stephen F. Austin on Thursday in the South Regional in Memphis, Tenn. The Bruins and Lumberjacks play Sunday in San Diego.