ORLANDO — After Florida struggled in its NCAA opening-round game, coach Billy Donovan challenged his Gators to go back and remember who they had been all season.
They accepted that challenge, and the 48 hours of introspection worked out well.
South Region No. 1 seed Florida relied on a stifling defense that created 11 turnovers, and a game-high 21 points from senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, for a 61-45 win over No. 9 Pittsburgh in the third round of the NCAA Tournament at the Amway Center on Saturday.
The Gators (34-2) have won 28 consecutive games and advance to their fourth consecutive Sweet 16 this week in Memphis.
"I was really, really proud of the way these guys came out and responded from our game on Thursday," Donovan said. "I thought our defense in particular, both halves it was good, but I thought in the second half it was really, really good."
After taking a five-point halftime lead on Wilbekin's running 3-pointer at the buzzer, Florida led by as many as 14 in the second half.
The Panthers wouldn't go away without a fight, going on a 10-4 run to pull within eight with 5:33 left.
Then Wilbekin took over. The SEC player of the year scored 13 of 15 by the Gators, including eight consecutive, to help Florida pull away for good.
"I would say it just happened," said Wilbekin, who shot 60 percent from the field and went over 900 points for his career. "Our offense isn't really designed for one player to do something. I think we did a good job of having good spacing."
Florida held Pitt to 37 percent from the field (19-of-51) — the third straight game an opponent has shot less than 40 percent — and 4-of-17 from 3-point range.
Florida held an opponent to 50 points or fewer for the fourth time in the past seven games.
"We played great defense, and that was a huge challenge that the coaches gave us coming into the game," sophomore guard and Tampa native Michael Frazier said.
Pittsburgh guard Cameron Wright entered with 29 double-figure games but didn't score his first basket until 9:29 remained, part of a run in which he scored seven of Pitt's nine. Center Talib Zanna was held to 10 points and six rebounds. Pitt's turnovers led to 16 points for the Gators, and Florida outscored the Panthers 36-24 in the paint.
"They're obviously a very good team, and the most physical team we've played all year long," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "They beat us on the glass and beat us to loose balls, and we've got to give them credit."
UF led 27-22 at halftime, the fewest points it had allowed in the first half since it held Texas A&M to 17 on Feb. 1.
"I enjoy that we're here, that we have the opportunity to continue to play, but I'm not going to be happy or satisfied until we reach our goal," senior center Patric Young said.
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]