ORLANDO — Incredibly, the No. 1-seeded Florida Gators still have some doubters, who are waiting for the trap door to open and justify their belief that Billy Donovan’s team doesn’t have the right stuff to win an NCAA title.
Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon considered that notion Saturday afternoon, after his No. 9-seeded Panthers absorbed a 61-45 beatdown at the hands of UF in the NCAA tournament’s South Region third-round game at the Amway Center.
Dixon’s reaction: Ridiculous!
“I think people try to find something wrong with this (UF) team and there’s not a lot wrong with them,’’ Dixon said. “They’re old. They’re experienced. They’re by far the most physical team we’ve played.’’
The Gators (34-2), winners of 28 consecutive games, have reached the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight season. UF meets the winner of today’s game between No. 4 UCLA and No. 12 Stephen F. Austin on Thursday night in Memphis, Tenn.
“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,’’ Gators senior center Patric Young said. “I’m not going to say it’s a failure if we fall short, but there is just so much potential in this team and greatness within us.
“If we go out and play (poorly) and allow a team to just take it from us, then we’re cutting ourselves short.’’
Against Pittsburgh (26-10), the Gators never allowed any breathing room.
The Panthers shot just 37.3 percent, marking the third consecutive game that UF held its opponent under 40-percent shooting from the field. It was the fourth time in the past seven games — and the fifth time in the past three NCAA tournaments — that UF limited an opponent to 50 points or fewer.
“I think that we have good individual defenders and we’ve bought into playing team defense and really helping each other,’’ said Gators senior guard Scottie Wilbekin, who had a game-high 21 points.
UF’s perimeter defense limited Lamar Patterson, Pittsburgh’s leading scorer at 17.4 points per game, to 3-for-11 shooting from the field and 1-for-7 from 3-point range. Another double-digit scorer, Cameron Wright, was 3-for-10 from the field.
Additionally, the Gators outrebounded Pittsburgh 38-31, while blocking five shots, collecting 10 steals and committing just six turnovers.
“They really dominated us on the glass,’’ Wright said. “Those guys did a great job boxing out.’’
“I mean, the numbers don’t lie,’’ Pittsburgh senior center Talib Zanna said. “They outplayed us. They outexecuted us. They got to the loose balls. We didn’t get it done.’’
It was a tight game throughout the first half. The Gators led by just two points in the final seconds. Pittsburgh, with fouls to give, allowed Wilbekin to get off a 3-point runner at the buzzer and it swished, sending UF to the locker room with a 27-22 advantage.
The Panthers were deflated.
“I don’t know if it was a turning point,’’ Dixon said. “We lost by 16 points, but it’s my fault. We can’t blame anybody else but me.’’
UF rode a 7-2 run to assume a double-digit lead early in the second half, and that’s mostly where it stayed. The Gators began asserting their all-court game on Pittsburgh, which became frustrated and didn’t have the offensive savvy to mount a comeback.
After UF’s lackluster performance against No. 16 Albany in the opening round — and Pittsburgh’s impressive rout of Colorado — Donovan led the Gators into a tough-love practice Saturday. Those lessons were quickly learned — and applied against the Panthers.
“As a coach, you always want to play to your identity, who you’ve been the entire year, and I didn’t feel like we did that (against Albany),’’ Donovan said. “I was disappointed because we really haven’t done that all year long.
“It’s very easy to say, ‘OK, hey, win, survive, we move on, everything is OK.’ I saw things inside of our team that I just did not like. I wanted to make sure we got back to who we were.’’
Defensive intensity is a large part of UF’s identity. It’s a major reason why the Gators could be headed back to their first Final Four since 2007. If Saturday’s game was any indication, Donovan’s team has rediscovered its best path to Arlington, Texas.
First, though, there’s the Sweet 16 in Memphis. The Gators will have a stern challenge — first proven UCLA or red-shot Stephen F. Austin, then maybe the likes of Kansas or Dayton in a region final.
But if the Gators are playing like themselves, particularly on defense, they have definite Final Four-worthiness.
“It’s the key for us every single game — loose balls, 50-50 balls, rebounding well, just getting energy points. I know they (Pittsburgh) really pride themselves on their frontcourt being able to rebound and overpowering the other bigs, but I think we did a better job up front this game.’’
On that point, there was no doubt.
PITTSBURGH (26-10) — Robinson 0-5 1-2 1, Young 2-4 0-0 4, Wright 3-10 0-0 7, Patterson 3-11 1-2 8, Zanna 5-7 0-0 10, Artis 3-8 1-1 7, Randall 0-0 0-0 0, Jones 0-0 0-0 0, Newkirk 3-6 0-1 8. Totals 19-51 3-6 45.
FLORIDA (34-2) — Young 3-11 1-2 7, Wilbekin 9-15 0-1 21, Yeguete 4-5 0-0 8, Frazier II 3-10 2-2 10, Prather 3-6 2-2 8, Hill 1-3 1-2 3, Finney-Smith 2-8 0-0 4, C. Walker 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-58 6-9 61.
Halftime—Florida 27-22. 3-Point Goals—Pittsburgh 4-17 (Newkirk 2-3, Wright 1-3, Patterson 1-7, Artis 0-1, Robinson 0-3), Florida 5-20 (Wilbekin 3-7, Frazier II 2-9, Yeguete 0-1, Finney-Smith 0-3). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Pittsburgh 31 (Patterson 8), Florida 38 (Finney-Smith, Young 8). Assists—Pittsburgh 14 (Robinson 6), Florida 9 (Hill, Prather, Wilbekin 2). Total Fouls—Pittsburgh 12, Florida 7. A—NA.