ORLANDO, Fla. -- Pitt's dreams of a trip to the Sweet 16 were smothered Saturday by the pressure defense of the Florida Gators, though that wasn't the only reason the season came to a grinding halt.
The No. 9 seed Panthers fell to the No. 1-seeded Gators, 61-45, before a crowd of 18,512 mostly blue-and-orange-draped Florida fans at Amway Center in an NCAA tournament South Region third-round game.
The Gators (34-2) advanced to the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive season and move on to Memphis, Tenn.. They will play against the winner between No. 4 seed UCLA (27-8) and No. 12 Stephen F. Austin (32-2).
Pitt players react to 61-45 loss to Florida
Pitt's James Robinson and Lamar Patterson react to their team's loss to Florida in the third round of the NCAA tournament. (Video by Matt Freed; 3/22/2014)
It is the fifth time in a row in NCAA tournament appearances that the Panthers have failed to advance to the Sweet 16. But unlike their recent disappointing tournament losses, this was a simple case that Florida, the tournament's top overall seed, was just too strong.
Florida outrebounded the Panthers, 38-31, and had 10 steals. The Gators also had the best player on the floor in senior guard Scottie Wilbekin, who scored 21 points and was a one-man wrecking crew down the stretch.
None of that was surprising because Florida is on the short list of favorites to win the national championship.
"They're obviously a very good team, the most physical team we have played all year long," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "They beat us on the glass and beat us to loose balls and we got to give them credit. Simply put, I was extremely disappointed in how we played. We are a better team than what we showed and we have been playing better basketball.
"We just didn't get it done and I'll take responsibility for that."
Senior Talib Zanna, who scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds, added, "They just got it done. They outrebounded us, they beat us to loose balls and they are recipes to victory and they did it. The numbers don't lie, they outplayed us."
Pitt (26-10) played one of its best overall games this season Thursday in a rout of No. 8 seed Colorado, 77-48, but the Panthers quickly figured out the Gators were far more ferocious than the Buffaloes.
Florida played its trademark full-court pressure and spent most of the first half using it more to force the Panthers to take time bringing the ball up the court. It was effective because Pitt struggled to get into its half-court offense.
But the Panthers played excellent defense in the first half and kept the game close.
Pitt made its first big mistake late in the half, however, with the Gators leading, 24-22, with eight seconds left.
The Panthers had three fouls to give before the bonus and used one after Florida inbounded the ball and ran three seconds off the clock.
The second time Florida inbounded the ball several Panthers had an opportunity to foul Wilbekin but failed to, and he hit a running 3-pointer at the buzzer that pushed the Gators' lead to 27-22.
Dixon said the plan was to foul but ... "Again, I'll take responsibility for that, we needed to make it clearer."
Pitt junior Cam Wright said that play swung momentum for the Gators.
"Whenever a team or a guy makes a shot like that before the buzzer, he has to be feeling amazing," Wright said. "When you make a shot like that it makes the basket seem that much bigger so it makes sense as to why he had such a big second half. But it wasn't deflating because we knew we had the ball coming out in the second half and we knew we could cut into the lead, maybe get it back to two."
Wilbekin said he was surprised that Pitt didn't foul.
"That's the look I hoped for in that situation," Wilbekin said. "I don't really shoot too many runner 3s but it went in and I was pretty happy about it."
The Gators used that momentum and took control after the half with a 7-2 run.
By the time that little flurry was over -- it was punctuated with an authoritative two-handed alley-oop dunk by 6-foot-9, 250-pound Patric Young -- Florida led, 34-24.
And even though there was 16 minutes to play, the Gators appeared to be in control.
"They are old, they are experienced ... they are by far the most physical team we've played," Dixon said. "They just banged us around all game long and the bodies are evident, their size and they're well-coached and then we just didn't execute. We tried to cut, we tried to curl, we tried to go to the basket and we just bounced off of them."
The Panthers went nearly 11 minutes only scoring two points while the Gators built their lead in the second half.
Florida's lead would have been bigger but it missed its first seven 3-point attempts of the second half.
Wilbekin made a layup with 7:47 to play that stretched the lead to 14 -- 47-33 -- but Pitt regrouped and made its only run of the second half to pull within 53-44 with 3:13 to play on a 3-pointer by Josh Newkirk.
Pitt would get no closer as Wilbekin put on a show down the stretch, scoring eight consecutive points.
"[Wilbekin] got in the lane and made some plays," Dixon said. "He is a really good player. He has been through some ups and downs, obviously, and he's had a great finish to his career. He played really well for them and we didn't do a good job on him.
"But he has a lot to do with it, he's been doing a pretty good job all year long."
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise. First Published March 22, 2014 2:29 PM