Make us your home page

Get the quickest, smartest news, analysis and photos from the Bucs game emailed to you shortly after the final whistle.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Florida Gators return to identity against Pitt Panthers

Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin does the Gator chomp for the crowd while leaving the court with teammate Will Yeguete after beating Pittsburgh. Wilbekin leads the Gators with 21 points.


Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin does the Gator chomp for the crowd while leaving the court with teammate Will Yeguete after beating Pittsburgh. Wilbekin leads the Gators with 21 points.


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.

Florida Gators return to identity against Pitt Panthers 03/22/14 [Last modified: Saturday, March 22, 2014 11:11pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Tampa Bay Super Bowls: A brief history and some predictions for 2021


    At last, Tampa will host a Super Bowl again. It used to be that the Cigar City would host one a decade, but by the time February 2021 rolls around, it will have been 12 years since the epic showdown between the Steelers and Cardinals in 2009. Because it has been awhile, let's revisit those past Super Bowls while also …

    New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, left, holds the AFC Championship trophy? as he celebrates with head coach Bill Belichick after the AFC championship NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. The Patriots defeated the the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-17 to advance to the Super Bowl.? (AP Photo/Matt Slocum) FBO247
  2. Sputtering Rays keep falling one run short

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — Even going into play against the Angels on Tuesday just a game under .500 at 23-24, the Rays have some issues they have to resolve.

    Rays starter Alex Cobb waits for Mike Trout to finish his trot after homering to give the Angels a 2-0 lead.
  3. Marc Topkin's takeaways from Tuesday's Rays-Angels game

    The Heater

    RHP Alex Cobb made mistakes on back-to-back pitches to the first two Angels hitters Tuesday, allowing homers to Cameron Maybin and Mike Trout, but otherwise gave the Rays another solid outing, working into the eighth and scattering seven hits.

  4. Rays journal: Brad Miller won't return from DL when eligible

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — 2B Brad Miller (left abdominal strain) will not return from the 10-day disabled list Friday as he hoped. While he took ground balls Tuesday, he has yet to resume running.

    Rays second baseman Brad Miller, left, with infielder Tim Beckham, says he’s letting his left abdominal strain “cool down” before testing it by running.
  5. USF baseball rallies to beat Tulane in AAC tournament opener


    CLEARWATER — With Tulane runners on first and second and two out in the top of the ninth inning Tuesday, USF's dugout watched as burly American Athletic Conference co-player of the year Hunter Williams' fly to left went deep.

    The University of South Florida Bulls take a moment on the field just prior to their game against Tulane in the American Athletic Conference Tuesday, May 23, 2017 in Clearwater.