ORLANDO, Fla. – Pittsburgh reverted to its late-season form. Florida’s stifling defense, frustrating press and valuable experience had a lot to do with it.
Talib Zanna scored 10 points, James Robinson finished with eight points, eight rebounds and four assists, but the Panthers were knocked out of the NCAA tournament with a 61-45 loss to the top-seeded Gators Saturday.
Pitt (26-10) kept it close early, but Florida (34-2) and guard Scottie Wilbekin dominated in the second half.
“They’re old, they’re experienced, they’re by far the most physical team we’ve played,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “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.”
Maybe the first sign things were going wrong for the Panthers came in the closing seconds of the first half.
Pitt had two fouls to give with 5 seconds remaining, but somehow let Wilbekin get off a running 25-footer just before the buzzer.
“We just wanted to come out and not let them play harder than us or not play as hard as we can,” Wilbekin said. “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.”
The 3-pointer gave Florida a 27-22 lead.
“It’s my fault,” Dixon said. “If there’s anything that goes wrong, it’s my fault, and I take responsibility. We know what happened, but we can’t blame anybody else but me. … Kid made a running shot from 25 feet, but we didn’t do what we … I didn’t get it done.”
Things unraveled from there.
The Gators used a 9-0 run early in the second half to create separation – Pitt missed nine consecutive shots and went 5 1/2 minutes without a point – and then Wilbekin took over down the stretch. He finished with 21 points.
“It was good to see him come back and respond the way he did today,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “I thought all the way around he played very well. … 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.”
The senior guard, who has played in three consecutive regional finals, scored 11 of Florida’s 13 points during a 7-minute stretch that turned a double-digit lead into a one-sided affair.
Wilbekin drained a back-breaking 3 with 8:24 remaining that gave Florida its largest lead at that point, 45-31. His consecutive floaters inside 5 minutes to play were equally troublesome for Pitt, which had played its best basketball in recent weeks after a late-season slump.
“He’s a great point guard,” Panthers forward Lamar Patterson said. “He took care of business.”
Adding to Pitt’s woes, the team shot 37 percent from the field and missed 13 of 17 shots from 3-point range.
The Panthers also turned the ball over 11 times – eight more than they did in their NCAA opener against Colorado – and were outrebounded 38-31.
“I was extremely disappointed in how we played,” Dixon said. “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.”
Zanna was a bright spot, holding his own early against Florida’s Patric Young.
Young was much more disruptive in the second half and didn’t give Zanna much praise afterward, saying Zanna wasn’t as tough a matchup as Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes or former Morehead State star Kenneth Faried.
“The coaches challenged us,” Young said. “The coaches made me watch a lot of film on Zanna and how good of a rebounder he was, and I was like the guy is no Jarnell Stokes. He’s not Kenneth Faried. If you show me film on those guys, then I might be scratching my head.
“Of course, he’s a great player and great rebounder, but I just knew I could step up to the challenge and really compete today.”