Whitley: Gators continue to show resolve in OT win in NCAA tournament

David Whitley
Gator Sports
Florida forward Colin Castleton blocks the shot of Virginia Tech guard Tyrece Radford in the second half Friday of a first-round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

On the court where "Hoosiers" was filmed, Florida looked like a victim of Jimmy Chitwood Moment.

In case you missed the movie, Hickory High's Chitwood hit a game-winning shot in the state championship game. On Friday, Virginia Tech's Nahiem Alleyne made 3-pointer with 1.7 seconds left to send the NCAA tournament game into overtime.

The Gators were still alive, but they looked and felt more like the South Bend Central Bears after Chitwood's shot.

"A lot of our heads were down," Colin Castleton said. "The coaches were preaching, 'We're gonna win this game! We're gonna win this game! Just push through the wall."

Coach Norman Dale (aka Gene Hackman) could not have said it better.

David Whitley

Florida's 75-70 win over Virginia Tech at Hinkle Fieldhouse was yet another unexpected plot twist in the strangest basketball season ever. The 7th-seeded Gators advanced to a Sunday game against 15th-seeded Oral Roberts, which upset Ohio State later Friday.

More:Florida tops Virginia Tech in OT to advance in its 2021 NCAA tournament opener

More:Oral Roberts beats Ohio State in OT, becomes ninth-ever 15 seed to upset 2 seed

Talk about an intriguing twist, it'll be the Golden Eagles instead of the No.  2 seed Buckeyes. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

If there's one thing Florida audiences have learned, it's not to assume anything. For instance, who would have assumed Friday that Tre Mann would be Florida's third-leading scorer?

Colin Castleton, Scottie Lewis step up

The top two were Castleton and Scottie Lewis, who had gone from supporting actors to bit players as Florida stumbled its way to Indiana. After Tennessee bounced the Gators out of the SEC tournament, coach Mike White just flat-out said his team doesn't have the emotional maturity it takes to be a championship team.

And now?

"I thought we took a step in the right direction," White said. "I consider it more mental toughness and resiliency. There are still some immature moments."

He said players occasionally celebrate and lose focus after they make shots. He didn't cite players losing their cool and getting flagrant fouls, which added to Friday's challenge.

Omar Payne was benched for rearranging John Fulkerson's face with his elbow last week. White said Payne's availability for Sunday's game is undetermined.

The Gators certainly could have used Payne on Friday after two other power forwards fouled out in overtime. Then again, they'd already shown a lot of resiliency just getting to that point.

Florida was down 10 points early against a very respectable team. The Hokies aren't a marquee ACC name, but coach Mike Young knows how to make life miserable for opponents.

Tre Mann quiet, Tyree Appleby hurt

Ask Mann, who didn't get his 10th point until there were less than three minutes left in the game. They were also missing Tyree Appleby, who's been Florida's best player not named Mann lately.

Appleby spent most of the second half in the locker room getting stitches in his forehead. It was rendered a bloody mess after an inadvertent elbow from Virginia Tech's Keve Aluma.

Florida forward Anthony Duruji (4) gets a dunk over Virginia Tech forward Keve Aluma (22) in overtime of a first-round game Friday in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Florida defeated Virginia Tech Hokies 75-70.

The Gators also suffered their usual case of turnover fever. Had all that happened last weekend, winning would have been a lost cause.

Florida survived Friday because Lewis had 15 points, which were 14 more than he had in the SEC tournament's two games. And Castleton could not have picked a better time to return to his two-time SEC Player of the Week form.

"I saw a different player than I've seen the last couple of weeks," White said.

What he saw was 19 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks, two assists and a center yelling "Yessss!" after he blocked a dunk attempt by Tech's Tyrece Radford.

A few minutes later, everybody was whispering "noooo" after Anthony Duruji missed two free throws to set up Alleyne's game-tying shot.

"It just shows who we are as a team," Castleton said. "It shows character."

Overcoming Virginia Tech's Chitwood Moment definitely showed some character. As for Friday showing what kind of team the Gators are, again, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

A week ago, we were burying this team. The flaws are still there, but so is the potential. What Friday showed was what kind of team the Gators can be.

If they keep it up, grab some popcorn. This movie could get very interesting.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley