Perfectly executed defensive plan

The best evidence of a perfectly executed defensive game plan won’t show up in the box score. Although Pittsburgh is a deliberate and patient offensive team, the Panthers weren’t prepared for a Florida defense that forced them to take bad shots so deep in the shot clock. The Gators forced Pitt to shoot the ball with five or fewer seconds on 14 possessions, which helps explain the Panthers’ 37.3% effort from the field and 23.5% effort from the 3-point line.

Speaking to the CBS sideline reporter after the game, Florida coach Billy Donovan said the Gators “played to our identity” which is to say that the defense smothered the Panthers and sapped their energy and will to win. This was a dominant performance for the Gators, whose 61-45 win at Orlando’s Amway Arena advances them to next week’s Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament South Regional in Memphis against the winner of Sunday’s third round game between UCLA and Stephen F. Austin.

It was stark contrast to Florida’s first game of the tournament against Albany on Thursday. Even though it was a win, Donovan admitted he was disappointed.

“We didn’t play to our identity there and I was disappointed by that because we really hadn’t done that all year long,” Donovan said.  “That’s why I was disappointed.  And I think it’s very, very easy just to kind of say, okay, hey, win, survive, we move on, everything is okay.  I saw things inside of our team that I just did not like.  And I say that in a way, there was nothing bad like in terms of bad attitudes or guys having a problem with one another, there was just this frustration, personal expectation, game not going the way they wanted it to go, and that’s not who we’ve been.  I just wanted to make sure they understood that and we got back to who we were.”

This game was all about playing to Florida’s identity. It really didn’t matter what Pitt did or what Pitt planned. It was all about the Gators coming to play their game. When the Gators are totally focused on themselves and what they have to do to win games at both ends of the court, they become a dominant team.

What makes this team so special is they don’t have to win a game any certain way and if the other team decides to take one scorer out – Pitt expended a ton of energy to keep the ball out of Michael Frazier’s hands Saturday – it only plays to Florida’s identity of a team that is the sum of all its moving parts.

The offense wasn’t great against Pitt. Part of that has to do with Pitt’s defense, which is one of the best in the country. Part of it might have to do with the amount of effort the Gators put into shutting the Panthers down. Whatever it was, Florida simply came out and played the game it had to play to survive and advance.

On this particular day, that meant defense first and getting just enough offense to win the game comfortably.

Florida brought the defensive intensity from the opening whistle, but it was a stretch of 8:38 in the second half that really defined what this Florida team is all about. The Gators, who took a 27-22 lead into the locker at halftime on a buzzer beater 3-pointer from Scottie Wilbekin, gave up the first two points of the second half on a Talib Zanna layup with 19:28 remaining in the game. The Panthers wouldn’t score again for 6:25 when Josh Newkirk bagged a 14-foot jumper. Over the next 3:33, Pitt managed only three more points.

During that same stretch, the Gators put 13 points on the board and had command of the game, 40-27.

In the first 10:30 of the second half, Florida held Pitt to 2-13 shooting – 2-11 inside the arc, 0-2 on 3-pointers – and turned the Panthers over four times. Of those 13 shots, six were attempted with less than five seconds remaining on the shot clock.

Two plays defined Florida’s defensive effort.

As the shot clock wound down to zero with 16:38 to go, Pitt’s best player Lamar Patterson wanted to shoot but couldn’t squeeze it off so he tried to dump the ball down low to Talib Zanna, the Panthers’ best low post scorer. Zanna was screened off by Patric Young and the ball went harmlessly out of bounds as the shot clock horn went off.

Patterson had the ball out beyond the time line with just under 12:40 to go in the game and Florida leading, 34-26. Will Yeguete challenged Patterson’s dribble and got a hand on it, poking it toward the out of bounds line. Yeguete hustled for the ball and in one motion grabbed and passed behind his back to Casey Prather, who streaked in for a dunk with 12:34 to go, giving the Gators their first double figures lead of the game at 36-26.

Florida’s superb defensive effort overshadowed the fact that Pitt also played tough and kept the Gators from turning the game into a rout. Once the Gators had a 10-point lead, there were opportunities to bust the game wide open, but Florida only scored two points over the next three minutes.

The Gators pushed the lead to 14 points (45-31) on a 3-pointer by Wilbekin with 8:24 left in the game but Pitt put together a mini-flurry to get the Florida lead down to eight, 49-41, with 5:32 to go in the game. The Pitt faithful sensed a rally, but Florida snuffed that out with more defense and a healthy dose of Wilbekin.

Pitt managed only four more points, going 0-5 from the field in the final 3:37 of the game. Wilbekin, meanwhile, scored eight straight for the Gators, six of them after milking the clock down to a few seconds. Wilbekin finished the game with 21 points, three rebounds, two assists and two steals.

On the defensive end, Wilbekin, Michael Frazier and Kasey Hill combined to hold Pitt’s starting guards – James Robinson and Cameron Wright – to eight points on 3-15 shooting and 1-6 from the 3-point line.

Patterson, who came into the game averaging 17.4 points per game, scored eight and only two came in the second half.

The same problems that plagued Pitt in the second half stifled the Panthers on the offensive end in the first half. Pitt took bad shots eight separate occasions when the shot clock dipped below five seconds. While the Panthers were struggling to get it going, so were the Gators, however. Pitt got a 3-pointer from Josh Newkirk and a baseline floater from James Artis for a 15-13 lead with 9:12 to go in the half, but that seemed to wake up the Gators.

Yeguete scored on a  drive to tie the game, then Kasey Hill stripped the ball from Robinson and went coast to coast for the layup that gave the Gators the lead for good at 17-15 with 5:38 to go. That was followed by a 3-pointer from Michael Frazier that gave Florida its first 5-point lead of the game at 20-15.

Pitt got back within two, 24-22, on Michael Young jumper with 8.2 seconds remaining in the half. After a Florida time out with 5.0 left, the Gators inbounded to Wilbekin who shot on the run from 25 feet to nail the 3-ball that sent the Gators into the locker with a 27-22 halftime lead.

GAME NOTES: The win was the 28th straight for the Gators (34-2), who are within one game of the school record of 35 wins in a season set by the 2007 NCAA championship team … It was the 118th win for Florida’s seniors, which makes Wilbekin, Prather, Young and Yeguete the winningest senior class in school history … It was Billy Donovan’s 449th win at Florida, which makes him the second winningest coach in Southeastern Conference history … Florida outrebounded Pitt, 38-31, with Young setting the pace with eight to go with seven points, one steal and four blocks … Yeguete and Prather each scored eight … Frazier was the only Gator other than Wilbekin to reach double figures with 10. 

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.