ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Scottie Wilbekin sat on the bench for the final minute, holding a bag of ice against his left knee.
It was about the only time he wasn’t giving Pittsburgh huge problems on both ends of the court.
Wilbekin scored 21 points, including 11 of the team’s 13 during a 7-minute stretch in the second half, and top-seeded Florida handled the Panthers 61-45 in the NCAA tournament Saturday. The Gators’ 28th consecutive win put them in the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive year.
The latest victory followed a lackluster and head-scratching performance in the team’s NCAA opener against Albany two days earlier.
The Gators vowed to play with more energy and intensity, and Wilbekin 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. “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.”
Wilbekin took over in the second half, scoring eight consecutive points at one point. Patric Young wasn’t too shabby, either, finishing with seven points and eight rebounds. Will Yeguete added eight points — all in the paint.
Michael Frazier II chipped in 10 points for the Gators. Frazier was just 2-of-9 shooting from 3-point range. Had Florida not been cold from behind the arc, the game would have been essentially over much sooner than it was. The Gators finished 5 of 20 from 3-point range, with at least five of those rimming in and out.
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.
The Gators have the longest current streak of Sweet 16 appearances — and expect to go further.
If Wilbekin continues to play like he did against the Panthers, Florida surely improves its chances of making another deep run in the tournament.
“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. 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.
Florida played the kind of defense that had to impress NFL coaches Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin. The Patriots and Steelers head men were on hand, with Belichick sitting behind Florida’s bench in a white Gators visor and Tomlin sitting opposite Pitt’s bench in Panthers colors.
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. They played well. I’m sure they’re proud of him and what he’s become, a local guy that’s done well.”
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.
But Wilbekin was the story in this one.
His 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.
“I think just trying to get better in little areas, the small stuff, trying to be a better leader,” said Wilbekin, who was suspended five games to start the season. “As far as how it translates on the court, I think it’s helped me become a better leader, be more connected with my teammates and coach. It’s helped me play with a freer mind.”