Sunday, June 24, 2018
Sports

Florida Gators return to identity against Pitt Panthers

ORLANDO

Now that's the No. 1 team in the nation.

That's the team worth all the praise, worth all the cheers, worth all the admiration. That's the team to beat in this NCAA Tournament. That's the Florida Gators, and baby, they're back.

Muscle? Yeah, they had that.

Hustle? Yeah, that, too.

Prepared for a tussle? More than anything, they were that.

The Gators, two days after treating their opening game as a rare stroll through the park, smothered an outmanned Pitt team with ease Saturday afternoon. The Gators jumped on Pitt from the start, dominating the boards, dictating the play with their defense, swarming the Panthers on their way to a 61-45 victory.

You want to doubt these guys now? This wasn't a leisurely cruise past an overmatched Albany team that left eyebrows raised across the nation. This was a flexing of the biceps, a primordial scream that re-established the predetermined order as this NCAA Tournament started setting the Sweet 16.

There for a while, it was easy to wonder. The Gators didn't look particularly interested in their opener Thursday, and it was easy to think that perhaps they were ripe for an upset. No. 16 seed Albany played just good enough to make Florida look bad.

Ah, but Saturday was a different case. The Gators played defense as if they were trying to impress New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who was in the audience. They dominated the glass as if they were endorsed by Windex. They seemed to get to every loose ball. They seemed to hit every big shot.

It was like watching a team that had learned its lesson in its opening game. And just maybe the Gators had. Maybe a lot of the winning of Saturday's game came during Friday's practice.

"As a coach, you always want to play to your identity and who you've been the entire year," Gators coach Billy Donovan said. "I didn't feel like we did that (against Albany). We didn't play to our identity, and I was disappointed because we hadn't done that all year long.

"I think it's very easy to say, 'Okay, win, survive, we move on, everything is okay.' But I saw things in our team that I just did not like. I just wanted to make sure they understood that and we got back to who we were.

"To their credit, I don't think any of them disagreed with anything I had to say. Hopefully, in some way, that helped us get prepared for this game."

The day between tournament games is one of the most important in college basketball. It is a day of adjustments, and the better teams tweak here and there and come out better for it. Consider, if you will, how much the disappointment of the first game meant to Donovan, whose team now has won 28 straight. For him, it had all the advantages of a defeat without the cost; it was an opportunity to grab his team's attention all over again.

"Coach was really getting on us and challenging us," said point guard Scottie Wilbekin. "He kept asking us if that was the team that we wanted to be. We just wanted to come out and not let them play harder than we did."

Wilbekin took the message to heart. He had 21 points, and there were times when this seemed to be his game. At one point in the second half he had 13 of the team's 15 points and everyone else was a supporting player.

Take, for instance, his play just before halftime. The Gators led by two with five seconds to go when Pitt intentionally fouled him. A second and a half later, it figured Pitt would do the same. Instead, Wilbekin went on a winding charge downcourt and launched a last-second shot for 3.

"I don't really shoot too many runner 3s, but it went in, and I was happy about it," Wilbekin said.

Poor Pitt. The No. 9 seed Panthers never knew what hit them in their worst loss of the season. Against Colorado in its first game, Pitt had looked so sharp, so aggressive, so dominant. As it turns out, Florida isn't Colorado.

"They're obviously a very good team and the most physical team we've played all year long," said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon. "They just banged us around all game long, and the bodies are evident. Their size, their experience. They're old; they're well-coached."

No, it wasn't a perfect day for Florida. Patric Young was only 3-of-11 from the floor, and the game was into the second half before he scored. Michael Frazier was only 2-of-9 from beyond the arc. As a team, the Gators hit only 1-of-10 from 3-point range in the second half. Yes, the Gators can get better.

Once again, however, the Gators were an intense basketball team. Every offensive possession seemed to matter. Every defensive stand was something to take personally.

Yeah, this is a team that can win it all. This is a team to take seriously.

Once again, this is a team that has a chance.

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