ORLANDO -- Everyone expected a down and dirty wrestling match. And for a half, they were right.
And then, Scottie Wilbekin played Mr. Clean.
Wilbekin, the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, reeled off 13 points in a late six-minute span to will the Florida Gators past the University of Pittsburgh 61-45 in the South Region’s third round Saturday at Amway Center.
The result sends Florida to the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive season, with the winner of UCLA-Stephen F. Austin up next. The Gators (34-2) also extended their school-record winning streak to 28 games.
Wilbekin, UF’s senior point guard, finished with a game-high 21 points on 9-of-15 shooting. How important was he to the Gators’ success? The seven other Florida players who saw the floor missed 27 of their 43 attempts from the field.
“Coach [Billy Donovan] was really getting on us and challenging us,” Wilbekin said when asked about the message after the team’s uninspiring win over Albany on Thursday. “He was asking us if that was the team we wanted to be in the last couple of games that we had. We wanted to come out and not let them play harder than us.”
No one played harder than Wilbekin, who logged 32 minutes — many of which were spent chasing star Panthers forward Lamar Patterson around the court.
And he would have played even more had he not banged knees late in regulation (Wilbekin believes the injury is just a bruise, and expects to be fine).
His hot shooting will get the headlines Sunday. But the real difference was Florida’s effort on the other end of the floor.
The Panthers (25-10) missed 60 percent of their shots in the first half, and mustered just 22 points.
And then the Gators really started playing defense.
Put simply, Pittsburgh couldn’t make a shot after halftime. The Panthers scored just five points in the first 10 minutes 30 seconds of the second half. By then, they had fallen too far behind to make a game of it late.
“Both halves were good [defensively],” Donovan said, “but in particular, the second half was really good.”
In all, the Gators held the Panthers to just 37 percent shooting — including 4 of 17 from behind the three-point arc — and forced 11 turnovers.
The most emphatic: A sequence in which Wilbekin stole the ball near midcourt and threw it ahead to Casey Prather, who lobbed it to Patric Young for an explosive dunk.
The bucket came in the midst of a 14-4 run that put the game out of reach. Young struggled from the field Saturday but still managed seven points, eight rebounds and four blocks.
Michael Frazier II added 10 points for UF. Talib Zanna (10) was the only Pitt player in double figures.
Florida also had the edge against Pitt on the boards, out-rebounding the Panthers 38-31.
“People try to find something wrong with this team at 34-2,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “There’s not a lot wrong with them.”
Well perhaps one quibble: they don’t exactly play pretty. An ugly, yet competitive first half featured three ties and nine lead changes, with neither side leading by more than five points. The Gators missed 16 of their first 27 shots; the Panthers missed 15 of their first 25.
And yet, Pitt looked poised to go into the break down by just two until UF capitalized on a befuddling mental breakdown.
Pittsburgh, with two fouls to give and less than four seconds left in the period, somehow allowed Wilbekin to weave through the defense and get off a buzzer-beating three-pointer. Dixon later blamed himself for the mistake.
It allowed the Gators to go into the break up 27-22 and with all the momentum. The 22 points were the fewest UF has allowed in the first half in seven weeks.
The second half was no better for Pittsburgh.