Florida handles Pitt 61-45 to make Sweet 16

MARK LONG AP Sports Writer Published:

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- Scottie Wilbekin sat on the bench for the final minute, holding a bag of ice against his left knee.

It was about the only time he wasn't giving Pittsburgh huge problems on both ends of the court.

Wilbekin scored 21 points, including 11 of the team's 13 during a 7-minute stretch in the second half, and top-seeded Florida handled the Panthers 61-45 in the NCAA tournament Saturday. The Gators' 28th consecutive win put them in the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive year.

The latest victory followed a lackluster and head-scratching performance in the team's NCAA opener against Albany two days earlier.

The Gators vowed to play with more energy and intensity, and Wilbekin spearheaded the effort.

"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."

Wilbekin took over in the second half, scoring eight consecutive points at one point. Patric Young wasn't too shabby, either, finishing with seven points and eight rebounds. Will Yeguete added eight points -- all in the paint.

Michael Frazier II chipped in 10 points for the Gators. Frazier was just 2-of-9 shooting from 3-point range. Had Florida not been cold from behind the arc, the game would have been essentially over much sooner than it was. The Gators finished 5 of 20 from 3-point range, with at least five of those rimming in and out.

Florida will face either fourth-seeded UCLA or 12th-seeded Stephen F. Austin on Thursday in the South Regional in Memphis, Tenn. The Bruins and Lumberjacks play Sunday in San Diego.

The Gators have the longest current streak of Sweet 16 appearances -- and expect to go further.

If Wilbekin continues to play like he did against the Panthers, Florida surely improves its chances of making another deep run in the tournament.

"It was good to see him come back and respond the way he did today," 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."

Wilbekin ended up getting iced down after banging knees with a defender. He got a well-deserved standing ovation as he limped off the court.

"He's a great point guard," Panthers forward Lamar Patterson said. "He took care of business."

Wilbekin hit a running 3-pointer at the first-half buzzer and 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.

The Panthers, who seemed focused on Young inside and Frazier out, had no answer for Wilbekin's dribble penetration. Wilbekin also was a force on the press, which helped force 11 turnovers and got the Panthers out of rhythm.

Florida played the kind of defense that had to impress NFL coaches Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin. The Patriots and Steelers head men were on hand, with Belichick sitting behind Florida's bench in a white Gators visor and Tomlin sitting opposite Pitt's bench in Panthers colors.

Wilbekin really started to dominate as Pitt steadily wore down in the second half.

"Got in the lane -- constantly," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "He's a senior, he's a really good player, he's been through some ups and downs, obviously, and he's had a great finish to his career, and that's what you hope happens to a kid that learns and gets better. They played well. I'm sure they're proud of him and what he's become, a local guy that's done well."

Talib Zanna led the Panthers with 10 points, their only player in double figures.

A lot was made of the inside matchup between Young and Zanna, two ripped centers who played well Thursday.

But Wilbekin was the story in this one.

His best play didn't even show up in the box score. Wilbekin saved one of the many loose balls Florida got to first, turned around and threw a strike to Casey Prather. Prather drove the lane and dropped the ball to Young for a dunk that energized the pro-Florida crowd.

"I think just trying to get better in little areas, the small stuff, trying to be a better leader," said Wilbekin, who was suspended five games to start the season. "As far as how it translates on the court, I think it's helped me become a better leader, be more connected with my teammates and coach. It's helped me play with a freer mind."

MIDWEST REGIONAL

LOUISVILLE 66, SAINT LOUIS 51

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Louisville didn't need a big game from Russ Smith to get back to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

Luke Hancock scored 21 points and the defending national champions shrugged off a cold shooting performance to beat Saint Louis 66-51 and advance to the round of 16 for the third straight year.

The fourth-seeded Cardinals (31-5) shot under 45 percent, had 19 turnovers and only got 11 points from Smith, their star. It didn't matter with the fifth-seeded Billikens (27-7) going 0 for 15 from 3-point range and struggling to take care of the basketball.

Louisville moves on the Midwest Regional semifinals in Indianapolis against either No. 1 seed Wichita State or No. 8 seed Kentucky. The unbeaten Shockers and Wildcats meet Sunday in St. Louis.

Saint Louis, which has never been to the Sweet 16, lost in the third round for the third consecutive year. Dwayne Evans led the Billikens with 16 points and Atlantic 10 player of the year Jordair Jett finished with 15.

Chris Jones made a couple of huge shots and scored 11 points for Louisville. Montrezl Harrell put a punctuation mark on the victory with a dunk that enabled him to finish with 10 points and 11 rebounds.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino improved to 50-16 in the NCAA tournament, including 41-6 when his team is the higher seed. The Cardinals are in the round of 16 for the 20th time, matching Kansas and trailing only North Carolina (25), Kentucky (24) and Duke (23).

Smith struggled shooting the ball for the second straight game, missing his first four attempts and going scoreless until his 3-pointer put the Cardinals up 25-14 in the final minute of the opening half. The Louisville star scored 18 points in the second-round win over Manhattan, however he was just 3 of 9 from the field and had six turnovers.

Saint Louis is one of only a handful of teams that start five seniors, and their experience and cohesion showed in weathering a slow start and methodically working its way back into the game after falling down by 11 points. The Billikens began the second half with a 13-2 run, holding Louisville without a field goal for nearly 7 minutes to take a 29-27 lead.

But Smith hit a floater in the lane, then made two free throws to restore order for the Cardinals, who forced 18 turnovers and limited Saint Louis to 39.6 percent shooting.

Louisville rebuilt their lead to 13 over the next 9 minutes, with Hancock making two long 3-pointers and Jones delivering a 3-pointer and acrobatic layup before Smith finished a 23-8 surge with a driving layup that put his team up 50-37.

Smith finished 3 of 10 from the field and had a team-high seven turnovers. The senior who's averaging more than 18 points led the Cardinals with seven assists.

Saint Louis got 22 points and a career-high 15 rebounds from Rob Loe to overcame a 16-point second-half deficit to beat North Carolina State in overtime on Thursday. Louisville survived a second-round scare, too, using a late spurt led by Smith, Hancock and Harrell to turn back a challenge from No. 13 seed Manhattan.

Loe had just 10 points and five rebounds Saturday. The Billikens, in the NCAA tournament for a school-record third straight year, lost to Michigan State and Oregon in the third round the past two seasons.

WEST REGIONAL

SAN DIEGO ST. 63, NORTH DAKOTA ST. 44

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Xavier Thames dropped in 3s from deep, finessed floaters in the lane and carried San Diego State the way he did all season as the Mountain West player of the year.

Thames would not let North Dakota State become this year's version of Florida Gulf Coast by sending the Aztecs home in the third round of the NCAA tournament.

Thames scored 30 points, and fourth-seeded San Diego State reached the round of 16 for the second time in school history, ending the run of No. 12 seed North Dakota State 63-44 on Saturday.

The Aztecs (31-4) now get to make the short drive up the interstate to Anaheim, Calif., where they will face either No. 1 seed Arizona or eighth-seeded Gonzaga in the West Regional semifinals on Thursday.

Thames, who was 9 of 19 from the field, had five assists and ended the comeback hopes of the Bison with a six-point spurt late in the second half that pushed the Aztecs' lead to 12. He finished one shy of his career-high in points.

Dwayne Polee II was the only other San Diego State player in double figures with 15, but the Aztecs didn't need a ton of scoring with Thames carrying the load and another defensive performance that suffocated the best shooting team in the country.

Kory Brown led the Bison (26-7) with 13 points, but it was the struggles of leading scorer Taylor Braun that had North Dakota State trying to play catch up. Braun missed nine straight shots during one stretch. Sometimes he was guarded by Thames. Other times it was J.J. O'Brien taking a turn on the Summit League player of the year.

Braun finished 2-of-14 shooting and just seven points. North Dakota State shot 50.9 percent for the season to lead the country, but could only make 31.9 percent against the Aztecs.

The 44 points were a season-low for the Bison, the previous low being 56 in a win over Western Illinois.

North Dakota State was one of three No. 12 seeds to help create another manic March by upsetting No. 5 seed Oklahoma 80-75 in overtime in the second round on Thursday. They had the players and the personality to become this year's version of FGCU -- just minus all those dunks.

Thames wasn't going to allow that to happen. The memories were still fresh of the flight home last year after San Diego State become one of those teams FGCU dunked all over on its way to an unforgettable March run.

Thames did it all for the Aztecs in the first half. He was responsible for 23 of San Diego State's 30 points, scoring 16 and assisting on another three baskets. He started the second half with a floater in the lane, a shot he repeated minutes later. He then found Polee on the wing for a 3 and the Aztecs lead was back to 40-30 after a quick North Dakota State spurt had trimmed the deficit to five.

Braun finally got a shot to fall when he spun in a reverse layup with 12:11 left, his first field goal in nearly 27 minutes of game time. By that point, the Bison were down eight and could never get much closer.

Braun finished the first half 1-of-10 shooting and equally quiet was Lawrence Alexander. The guard who hit all the big shots against Oklahoma finished with three points after scoring 28 against the Sooners.

SOUTH REGIONAL

DAYTON 55, SYRACUSE 53

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Dyshawn Pierre scored 14 points and Jordan Sibert hit a key 3-pointer with 47.7 seconds left as Dayton stunned Syracuse 55-53 to earn a spot in Sweet 16 for the first time in three decades.

Syracuse was poised to pull out another close victory, but Tyler Ennis' 3-point attempt clanged off the rim at the buzzer.

Dayton (25-10), the 11th seed in the South Regional, advances to the regional semifinals next week and will play Kansas or Stanford.

The third-seeded Orange (28-6), who finished second in their first year in the Atlantic Coast Conference, struggled all game against the swarming Dayton defense, missing all 10 attempts from beyond the arc, while the Flyers hit seven times from long range.

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