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Wilbekin leads Florida past Pitt into Sweet 16

| Saturday, March 22, 2014, 5:51 p.m.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Trailing by two points at the end of the first half with fouls to give, Pittsburgh wisely fouled Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin with four seconds remaining before he could shoot.

But then the Panthers let Wilbekin shoot a running 3-pointer that went in at the buzzer for a 27-22 halftime lead. The rest of the way, Wilbekin came through when the top-ranked Gators needed him, scoring 13 of 15 Gators points down the stretch in a 61-45 victory in the NCAA Tournament third round.

“We all know what happened, and it's on me,” coach Jamie Dixon said of the shot to end the first half. “We didn't get it done. Kid made a running shot from 25 feet, but we didn't ... I didn't get it done.”

Florida (34-2) won its 28th straight game with stifling defense, especially to start the second half. Pitt went 1 for 11 from the field with six turnovers over a span of 9 minutes, 48 seconds, allowing the Gators to go on a 13-3 run for a 40-27 lead.

The Panthers made a run to cut the Gators' lead to 49-41 with five minutes left, but Wilbekin took over, scoring Florida's final four baskets to secure the win.

“He makes tough shots. That's what he does,” teammate Dorian Finney-Smith said.

The Gators advanced to the Sweet 16 in Memphis, where they will face the winner of Sunday's game between fourth-seeded UCLA and 12th-seeded Stephen F. Austin.

Wilbekin, a 6-foot-2 senior voted SEC Player of the Year, had been suspended in June, not returning until the sixth game of the season.

He bounced back to become a central player and leader, and his 21 points Saturday matched his second-best total of the season.

“I thought Scottie, coming down the stretch of the game ... made some things happen for our team, made some great plays,” coach Billy Donovan said.

“I did not think Scottie played particularly well in the game against Albany (on Thursday). It was good to see him come back and respond the way he did today.”

The Gators, as has been the case all season, received contributions from all over, with guard Michael Frazier scoring 10 points and forward Will Yeguete adding eight on 4-for-5 shooting.

Center Patric Young had seven points, eight rebounds and four blocks, but down the stretch it was Wilbekin who led Florida.

Wilbekin played 32 minutes with only one turnover and went 9 for 15 from the field, including that unexpected spark on the 3-pointer at the end of the first half.

“I expected them to foul me, too, but they didn't. I was just trying to get a shot up,” Wilbekin said. “I don't really shoot too many running 3s, but it went in, and I was pretty happy about it.”

Greg Auman is a freelance writer.

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