Latest 'Cinderella' at Big Dance has Florida's attention

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer

Following the team’s first practice session since downing Virginia Tech in overtime Friday afternoon, Florida junior guard Noah Locke admitted Saturday he, like most of the country, didn’t know much about Oral Roberts until the No. 15-seed put the college basketball world on notice when the Golden Eagles of Tulsa, Oklahoma, upset No. 2 seed Ohio State, 75-72. 

Nor did he know the Gators’ upcoming match-up featured the nation’s leading scorer, 6-foot-1, 165-pound guard Max Abmas. 

Locke and his teammates are well on the way to being well-versed in their next opponent, as the Gators don’t plan on making the mistake that numerous teams have made in the NCAA Tournament when UF tips off with Oral Roberts at 7:45 p.m. Sunday: underestimating an underdog. 

More:Scouting Gators' NCAA tournament opponent: Oral Roberts

Oral Roberts hoping to move past upset, focus on Florida

“We saw that those guys can play, it’s not a game where we can just come in and underestimate them,” said Locke, adding UF made it off the court in time to watch OSU fall. “All those guys can score, I mean the leading scorer in the country’s on their team, but they got other guys that can play.”

Abmas came into the Big Dance averaging 24.4 points per contest while shooting 43.3 percent from beyond the arc, and he didn’t slow down against the Buckeyes. He poured in 29 points while playing all 45 minutes for Oral Roberts — though it was the supporting cast Locke mentioned that helped secure just the ninth win in NCAA Tournament history for a No. 15 seed over a No. 2 seed. 

Junior forward Kevin Obanor led Oral Roberts in scoring Friday, netting 30 points on 9-for-21 shooting while also playing the entire game. Abmas and Obanor combined for 10 of the Golden Eagles’ 11 3-pointers. 

Gators have to have the 'right mindset'

Florida’s guards will be up for good reason, and it’s not just because they’re playing an underdog with presumably many in the nation behind them rooting for another surprising result from a 15 seed. 

“As for our mentality, not coming in underestimating them, because I feel like usually teams in the tournament, when it’s a Cinderella team and they win their first game, the next team comes up they’re like ‘Aw well we got a 15-seed, an inferior opponent’,” Locke said. “They come in thinking that way and then they beat them, and then they just keep going and going. So for us to be able to come into the right mindset and doing the right things, guarding them to the best of our ability, I feel like we’ll be able to get a win.”

As for the Gators, they found a way to get a win over Virginia Tech despite both trailing by double-digits early in the first half and choking away an opportunity late in regulation to put the game away. 

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

After Anthony Duruji’s missed free throws gave the Hokies a shot to tie it in regulation, Florida proceeded not to foul, giving Virginia Tech a shot in the waning seconds to send the game to overtime, and Nahiem Alleyne proceeded to knock down a clean look from the right wing to put five extra minutes on the clock. 

It wasn’t the only blunder that was apparent either in the final minute of regulation. The Gators struggled to inbound the ball against Virginia Tech’s full-court press and let a five-point lead evaporate before the regulation buzzer. 

Coach Mike White says Gators considered fouling Hokies

Florida coach Mike White acknowledged the Gators considered fouling at the end, which would have sent the Hokies to the free-throw line for a possible two points rather than give the opposition a game-tying 3-pointer, but they didn’t in part because UF hasn’t had many opportunities to simulate late-game sequences in the pandemic-shortened season that’s been fraught with difficulties for the Gators. 

“Everyone’s got different philosophies on all that, of course. With us, we practice fouling some, definitely a lot more in the past couple years. This season has given us less opportunity to practice special situations. It was definitely something we were considering, that I was considering,” White said. “I was planning on using one (timeout) there to try to set our defense. Unfortunately, we missed a couple (free throws). I didn’t want to freeze my own shooter. Unfortunately, we missed a couple and we didn’t even get matched.”

It was touch and go, but fortune would favor Florida in the end, with much of the credit going to the play of Locke, as well as junior forward Colin Castleton and sophomore Scottie Lewis, which White repeated Saturday.

“Scottie Lewis was a major contributor,” White said. “Colin Castleton becoming a lot more of a presence than he was late season. Again, that had a lot to do with the defenses we faced late-season, but he got it going yesterday. Some of it, a lot of it, was him, but a lot of it was his teammates putting him in a position to be successful.”

And of course the play of Tre Mann, who shut the door on VT’s season with a step-back 3-pointer with 23 seconds remaining in overtime from the same spot Alleyne hit from to send the game to overtime. The Gainesville native played all but one minute against the Hokies, with significant responsibility falling on his shoulders late after Tyree Appleby exited with just under 10 minutes left in the second half after taking an elbow that knocked him to the floor and left him bleeding from his forehead.

Appleby is a game-time decision Sunday night after receiving stitches, so the Gators will once again rely on Mann to run the offense if he’s limited or unavailable. Top reserve Omar Payne, who was suspended by White from Friday's game, is also a game-time decision.

Just like the Gators shouldn’t take the Golden Eagles lightly, Mann’s play continued to show why it may be at one’s peril to underestimate him as well. 

“It was a little bit of a broken play there where he’s just in space and he just steps up and makes a huge shot,” White said. “An all-league guard making an all-league shot in the NCAA Tournament. He’s worked his butt off and he’s put himself in position to do that.”

Second round

What: NCAA Tournament, South Region

Who: No. 15 seed Oral Roberts (17-10) vs. No. 7 seed Florida (15-9)

When: 7:45 p.m. Sunday

Where: At Indiana Farmers Coliseum, Indianapolis

TV: truTV

Radio: AM-850, 98.1-FM

From Friday

Florida 75, No. 25 Virginia Tech 70, OT

VIRGINIA TECH (15-7)

Aluma 3-6 1-2 7, Mutts 2-5 2-4 6, Alleyne 8-18 8-11 28, Bede 0-1 0-0 0, Radford 7-15 4-4 18, Cattoor 4-11 0-0 11, Pemsl 0-1 0-0 0, N'Guessan 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-57 15-21 70.

FLORIDA (15-9)

Castleton 6-8 7-8 19, Duruji 4-7 1-5 9, Appleby 2-6 2-2 6, Locke 4-8 2-2 10, Mann 5-9 1-2 14, Lewis 5-8 3-4 15, Osifo 0-0 2-4 2, Lane 0-0 0-0 0, Ruzhentsev 0-0 0-0 0, Jitoboh 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-46 18-27 75.

Halftime_Virginia Tech 33-27. 3-Point Goals_Virginia Tech 7-23 (Alleyne 4-10, Cattoor 3-10, Mutts 0-1, Radford 0-2), Florida 5-13 (Mann 3-6, Lewis 2-3, Duruji 0-1, Locke 0-1, Appleby 0-2). Fouled Out_Aluma, Mutts, Duruji, Osifo. Rebounds_Virginia Tech 22 (Aluma 7), Florida 35 (Castleton 14). Assists_Virginia Tech 11 (Mutts 4), Florida 9 (Mann 4). Total Fouls_Virginia Tech 24, Florida 19.