The (1) Florida Gators (34-2) pulled away early in the second half to take down the (9) Pittsburgh Panthers (26-10) with a 61-45 victory in the third round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament at the Amyway Center in Orlando, FL. After the game, head coach Billy Donovan and some players met with the media to discuss the win.
BACK TO FORM
Coming off a widely-panned disappointing performance against Albany, Florida had a choice when it faced Pittsburgh on Saturday – continue its less-than-stellar play and try to squeak out another victory or return to form and regain momentum.
The Gators obviously chose the latter path, which Donovan laid out for his team during practice and game preparation on Friday.
“You always want to play to your identity and who you’ve been and who we’ve been the entire year. I didn’t feel like we did that [on Thursday]. We didn’t play to our identity there, and I was disappointed by that because we really hadn’t done that all year long. That’s why I was disappointed,” he explained.
“I saw things inside of our team that I just did not like. There was nothing bad like in terms of bad attitudes or guys having a problem with one another, there was just this frustration, personal expectation, game not going the way they wanted it to go, and that’s not who we’ve been. I just wanted to make sure they understood that and we got back to who we were. …
“I don’t think any of them disagreed with anything I had to say. And I think that they understood where I was coming from and hopefully that in some way helped us get prepared for this game.”
That preparation included Florida getting ready for a challenging, physical contest that would likely be low-scoring. The Gators wound up dominating the Panthers in the post, grabbing 14 offensive boards, winning the rebounding battle 38-31, registering five blocks and only committing seven fouls on the afternoon. (UF also matched a season-low by giving up only six turnovers.)
“Coach was really getting on to us and challenging us and just asking us if that was the team that we wanted to be in these last couple of games that we have,” said senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin. “We just wanted to come out and not let them play harder than us or not let us play as hard as we can, and 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.”
HE IS A “HEADLINE GUY”
Overlooked on Saturday – as Donovan noted, mostly because he does not normally fill out the box score – were the contributions of senior forward Will Yeguete, who was not only a strong defensive presence throughout the game but also hit 4-of-5 shots, grabbed four rebounds and finished with seven points on the afternoon.
Yeguete had one of his best games of the season, and it all started with the mindset he carried entering the contest.
“I was just trying to be aggressive defensively. I knew they were going to be a really good team,” he said. “On offense, I was trying to make plays and help my teammates, and I was able to shoot the ball sometimes and able to make plays and that’s really what I wanted to do today because I knew they were going to be a really good team from the get go and I had to be ready to go.”
Donovan praised Yeguete not only for his performance on Saturday but more so because of how important he has been for the Gators throughout his career. Yeguete does the dirty work – rebounding, defending, diving for loose balls – without receiving the appropriate recognition from many of those covering and watching the team.
While fans have certainly let Yeguete know he is appreciated at Florida, Donovan explained how he goes above and beyond to ensure that the Ivorian understands how integral he is to the program.
“It’s huge. He’s big. And again, he’s one of those guys that – look down at the stat sheet and he’s probably going to take anywhere from two to five shots per game, but he just does so many different things in the press. He’s such a great cover guy with our defense. He’s a great help defender. He’s the epitome of a guy that when you look down at the stat sheet it’s hard to have a level of appreciation for him,” said Donovan.
“I’ve always tried to talk to Will about how much I appreciate [him] because he really impacts winning. He really impacts the game in a very, very positive way for us and what he does is really, really rare. It’s hard to find. It’s hard to find guys that really kind of hang their hat on being kind of a dirty work guy, and it’s hard sometimes because certainly it doesn’t really give them a lot of headlines. He’s not a headline guy. But he really does a lot for our team.”
THE FIRE RISES
Pick a positive moment for Florida over the final 20:04 of the game – there were plenty – and chances are that Wilbekin played a major part in making it happen. In that span, which began with a buzzer-beating runner three-pointer to end the first half, Wilbekin scored 16 of his 21 points and continued to shut down Pittsburgh’s leading scorer, F Lamar Patterson.
Patterson, who referred to Wilbekin as a “great point guard” and someone who “took care of business,” averages a team-high 17.4 points per game for the Panthers but was held to just eight points Saturday on 3-of-11 shooting due in large part to Wilbekin’s defensive effort.
“He was worn out. He was chasing Patterson all over the court, and he went down the stretch and scored 13 points in a row for us,” said Donovan. “I mean, 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 was pulled late in the game with a bothered knee, which he described after the game as “bruised” and “fine” despite the fact that he was sporting an ice pack in the post-game press conference. Apparently, Wilbekin banged knees with someone on the opposing team but is expected to be fine for next week.
Before he minor injury, Wilbekin put together one of the best scoring stretches the Gators have seen this season – save from a three-point barrage by a certain sharpshooter a few weeks ago. Wilbekin not only hit the runner at the end of the first half but scored eight-straight points in the second half as part of a 6:51 stretch in which he was responsible for 13 of Florida’s 15 points.
Wilbekin noted that UF’s offense “isn’t really designed for one player to do something,” but Donovan game-planned for his floor general to get into the lane and turn the corner against Pittsburgh. He also reiterated some praise for Wilbekin after the contest.
“It’s been one of the great experiences for me as a coach going through what he and I have gone through together,” he said. “People get a chance maybe to see him grow as a player; I got a chance to see him grow as a person.”
WINNING ON THE COURT
Former Florida team manager Kyle Gilreath, who now works for Fast Model Sports and runs an interesting basketball blog Words on the Bounce. diagrammed a play that worked quite well for the Gators against the Panthers on Saturday.
Frequenting his baseline series all game, Donovan ran this tweak to the set, adding in a double side pick-and-roll. This line-up for Florida is extremely versatile because it essentially has three point guards on the floor including Wilbekin (1), freshman Kasey Hill (2) and redshirt sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith (4).
As 1 (Wilbekin) came off the double pick-and-roll he had multiple options of attack:
1. Attack the rim or pull-up | 2. Drop down pass to (5) rolling
3. (2) and (3) spotting up on the weak side wing | 4. Throwback to (4) who can catch-and-shoot or attack
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Florida is now 8-0 playing as the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament (6-0 in national championship-winning 2007 season).
» The Gators are now 40-16 all-time in the event (19 appearances) with a 33-11 record under Donovan (15 appearances).
» UF advanced to its fourth-straight Sweet 16 and has improved to 10-4 all-time in Round of 32 games.
» Florida extended its winning streak to a program-record 28 games with victories in 33 of its last 34 contests.
» Both of the teams UF lost to this season, Wisconsin and UConn, also advanced to play in the Sweet 16. Florida has not dropped a game since Dec. 2, 2013 and both of its losses came on the road.
» The Gators are 7-0 in neutral-site games this season.
» Donovan passed Dale Brown (LSU) to move into second-place all time for wins at an SEC school with 449.
» Florida’s senior class officially became the winningest in program history with 118 victories in four seasons.
» Panthers coach Jamie Dixon on the Gators: “Congratulations to Florida. They’re obviously a very good team, and the most physical team we’ve played all year long. They beat us on the glass and beat us to loose balls, and we got to give them credit. … Simply put, I was extremely disappointed in how we played. We’re a better team than what we showed today, and we have been playing better basketball. We just didn’t get it done, and I take responsibility for that. We didn’t execute well enough, we didn’t rebound well enough, and as I told the guys, I’ll take responsibility for that. We didn’t block out as well as we needed to, and we didn’t execute offensively as well as we needed to, and again, I take responsibility for that. We lost to a very good team, though, so take nothing away from Florida. They’re good, and there’s a reason why they’re the No.1 seed, the most physical, oldest team we’ve played all year, and they showed it.”
» Dixon on Florida, continued: “People try to find something wrong with this team at 34 2 and there’s not a lot wrong with them. They’re old, they’re experienced, they’re by far the most physical team we’ve played. They just banged us around all game long and the bodies are evident, their size, they’re experienced, they’re old. They’re well coached, all those things, and we just didn’t execute. We tried to cut, we tried to curl, we tried to go to the basket, and we just bounced off of them. That was something we talked about throughout the game. We just couldn’t get it done. They were more patient offensively, made a lot of shots at the end of the clock, at the end of possessions, and we didn’t.”