Marching forward from complete dominance of Colorado, the ninth-seeded Pitt Panthers faced their most difficult task this season: Defeat the No. 1-ranked Florida Gators in Orlando in order to advance to the NCAA Sweet 16.
Earlier this season, Pitt welcomed No. 1 Syracuse to the Pete and lost in heartbreaking fashion on a deep buzzer-beater. The Panthers had a chance for redemption Saturday against the top team in the country on the NCAA tournament stage.
Pitt scored 46 points in the first half against Colorado, but couldn’t match that total in the entire afternoon against Florida. The Panthers were beaten in most facets of the game, falling 61-45 in a disappointing end to the season.
The Florida defense gave Pitt problems all game, as the Panthers committed 11 turnovers and did not drive to the basket effectively. Pitt (26-10) also went on severe scoring droughts, and the Gators were simply too athletic for the Panthers.
Pitt senior center Talib Zanna had 10 points (5 of 7 shooting) and six rebounds, while senior guard Lamar Patterson added eight points on just 3 of 11 shooting, plus eight rebounds and four assists. Pitt’s starting backcourt of James Robinson and Cameron Wright only managed eight total points, shooting 3 of 15.
For Florida (33-2), senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin scored 21 points on 9 of 15 shooting, and sophomore guard Michael Frazier II added 10 points. Florida forced ten steals and committed a total of just seven fouls.
Both teams battled back and forth in a low-scoring, defensive first half. The Panthers had trouble running their offense against a stingy Gators defense, which forced shots due to the shot clock. Whereas we saw Pitt put up 46 first-half points last game, the Panthers only scored 22 in this half.
The Panthers went on a seven-minute drought, which is a recipe for disaster against the No. 1 team in the nation. Up 15-13, Pitt only scored seven total points in the last nine minutes of the half. Luckily, Florida missed some shots down the stretch as well.
It was a 24-22 game with five seconds to go, with Pitt having committed just four fouls, when Florida’s Wilbekin hit a running 3-pointer as time expired. Florida went into the break leading 27-22, and outrebounding Pitt 19-13. I have to question why Pitt didn’t use a few more fouls near the end.
In the first half for Pitt, Patterson scored seven points and hauled in five rebounds; nobody else scored more than four points. Robinson and Wright combined for zero. For the Gators, Wilbekin scored eight and Frazier hit two 3s.
Going into the second half, the Panthers needed to attack the basket more often, since jump shots were not falling.
The Panthers never did, as Florida’s transition defense prevented them from getting any easy buckets.
Pitt scored just five points in the first 10 1/2 minutes of the second half. That simply is not going to cut it against the No. 1 team in the country. The Gators hauled in 14 offensive rebounds, winning the rebounding battle 38-31 total.
Nothing seemed to go right for the Panthers, and Pitt ends the season with a disappointing 16-point loss.
The final five minutes was tough to watch and extremely disappointing for seniors Patterson and Zanna, but who expected Pitt to be in this situation at the beginning of the season?
Like in years past, Pitt must move on, build upon the experience, and regroup for next season. With the loss of two senior leaders, others will need to step up for Pitt to have another successful season.
Florida will face the winner of UCLA and Stephen F. Austin in the Sweet 16 next week.