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Panthers have eye on upsetting top-seeded Florida

| Friday, March 21, 2014, 10:12 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Talib Zanna drives past Colorado's Josh Scott during the first half of their NCAA Tournament second-round game Thursday, March 20, 2014, at Amway Center in Orlando, Fla.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Pitt players were listening to music and laughing aloud in a locker room so loose there was no indication they were less than 24 hours from playing the nation's No. 1 team.

Following a 29-point victory over Colorado in their NCAA Tournament opener, the ninth-seeded Panthers (26-9) are brimming with confidence as they prepare to play Florida (33-2) in a South Region third-round game at 12:15 p.m. Saturday at Amway Center.

And it didn't appear to faze Pitt that Florida has won 27 consecutive games, went 18-0 in SEC play and practically is playing in its own backyard.

“These are the games you grow up dreaming about and working out for. You want to play in these scenarios,” Pitt fifth-year senior swingman Lamar Patterson said. “Florida is obviously a great team. Everyone wants to beat them. We want to beat them. We're going to give them our best shot.

“It comes down to who wants it more. Florida is a great team, but I feel like we're a great team, also. They have that No. 1 seed, so they have the accolades and we're sort of just reaching what we have potential to be.”

It has the potential to be the biggest win in school history, given the circumstances. Pitt has beaten the nation's No. 1 team before — twice, actually, with victories over Connecticut in 2008-09 — but it never has beaten a team seeded higher than No. 4 (Xavier, 2009) in the NCAA Tournament.

The Panthers have faced a No. 1 seed only once in their NCAA tourney history, losing to N.C. State, 100-72, in 1974. The Wolfpack went on to win the national title.

But Pitt believes the pressure is on Florida. And the Gators, after a lackluster 67-55 victory over Albany, are aware they are playing with bull's-eyes on their backs.

“In this tournament, you have to be aware that every team is fighting for their life, and the goal is just to survive,” Florida senior center Patric Young said. “Seeding doesn't matter when it comes down to between the lines. … We just have to make sure we do whatever it takes to survive, and every team is going to keep that same mindset of just moving on to the next round.”

Pitt fifth-year senior center Talib Zanna is impressed with Florida's chemistry, noting the Gators have four senior starters who have won 117 career games and at least one NCAA tourney game each year.

The Panthers are using Florida's No. 1 ranking and top overall seeding, as well as playing before a pro-Gators crowd, as incentive.

“I don't think we have any pressure right now,” Zanna said. “We really have confidence going into this game. A lot of people are already counting us out. We're just going to use that as motivation, to stay hungry.”

Not only has Pitt won six of its last eight games, but the Panthers nearly beat No. 1 Syracuse on Feb. 12 before Tyler Ennis hit a buzzer-beating 35-footer. They also have a pair of three-point losses to No. 1 seed Virginia.

Now they have another chance to beat No. 1.

“That's kind of in the back of our minds, if at all,” Pitt point guard James Robinson said. “This is a good opportunity for us, a time to show what we were capable of doing all season. We're playing our best basketball right now, so what better time to put it on display?”

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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