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In the end, the Gators finally became the team you hoped to see

John Romano | Florida has been uneven and undisciplined since Keyontae Johnson went down, but came through in OT vs. Virginia Tech in the NCAA Tournament.
Florida forward Colin Castleton blocks the shot of Virginia Tech guard Tyrece Radford in the second half of a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Florida forward Colin Castleton blocks the shot of Virginia Tech guard Tyrece Radford in the second half of a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. [ MICHAEL CONROY | AP Photo/Michael Conroy ]
Published Mar. 19
Updated Mar. 19

One game, one afternoon, one opportunity. One comeback, one stand, one heart.

Is that really all it took? After a season of fear and loss and inconsistency, did one first-round game in the NCAA Tournament completely change the way you will remember the Florida Gators of 2020-21?

By the time Colin Castleton was done shouting, Tre Mann was done shooting and the Gators were done sweating, did you have a better appreciation for a team that, at times, has been difficult to decipher?

It certainly felt that way by the end of Florida’s 75-70 overtime victory against Virginia Tech on Friday afternoon at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. It wasn’t just that Florida advanced past the first round to set up a Sunday game against upstart No. 15 seed Oral Roberts — it was the way the Gators did it.

To begin with, coach Mike White made the virtuous call to suspend forward Omar Payne for throwing an elbow at a Tennessee player in the SEC tournament. Then guard Tyree Appleby left the game after someone else’s inadvertent elbow led to a bloody and stitched-up forehead. Then Osayi Osifo fouled out and, later, Anthony Duruji followed.

Florida guard Tyree Appleby is treated after being injured in the second half against Virginia Tech.
Florida guard Tyree Appleby is treated after being injured in the second half against Virginia Tech. [ MICHAEL CONROY ]

Finally, after the Gators had trailed for a 30-minute stretch through the middle of the game, they missed two free throws and blew a three-point lead in the final seven seconds of regulation.

“We weren’t losing that game. That’s just what it comes down to,” said Castleton, the 6-11 junior transfer from Michigan who had the game of his career with 19 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks.

“You have to have that mind-set. We didn’t want to go back to Florida just yet. You have to keep pushing, keep fighting. This is what practice and preseason conditioning is (for). This is what we prepare for, this is March Madness.”

This is also, in some ways, vindication for a group of players who have spent the past few months trying to figure out who they were. Back in early December the Gators were undefeated and knocking on the door of the top 25 when SEC preseason Player of the Year Keyontae Johnson frighteningly collapsed on the court during a game against Florida State.

He would spend 10 days in a hospital with an undisclosed diagnosis before returning to the team as a quasi-coach with his playing career still in limbo. From the time Johnson went out of the lineup, the Gators would go 11-9, including a late-season stumble with three losses in four games before reaching Indianapolis.

Virginia Tech guard Nahiem Alleyne goes up for a shot over Florida guard Tre Mann.
Virginia Tech guard Nahiem Alleyne goes up for a shot over Florida guard Tre Mann. [ MICHAEL CONROY ]

They could count on Mann for scoring and Castleton for occasional spurts, but otherwise struggled with turnovers and consistency. In some ways, the No. 7 seed in the tournament seemed like a gift for a team that appeared to be on a downhill slide.

“This team just continues to show character. No one has been through what they’ve been through. Really proud of our guys,” White said. “Proud of the overcoming of adversity, as these guys continue to show.”

Florida fell behind barely four minutes into the game and spent the rest of the afternoon chasing the Hokies. For a game that went to overtime, there was a grand total of two lead changes in 45 minutes of basketball.

UF was hurt by Virginia Tech’s outside shooting in the first half, and compounded the problem by missing five 3-pointers to start the game. It wasn’t until the Gators began working the ball inside to Castleton and tightened up on defense that they began wearing down the 10th-seeded Hokies.

Trailing 46-40, Castleton scored 10 of the next 13 points for Florida to retake the lead at 53-52 with 5:14 remaining.

“If Colin doesn’t step up like he does, obviously we’re going home,” White said. “I thought he showed more physical toughness today down the stretch.”

Florida coach Mike White gestures in the first half Friday.
Florida coach Mike White gestures in the first half Friday. [ MICHAEL CONROY ]

With two of their top players fouling out in overtime, Virginia Tech appeared to be on fumes. Still, it wasn’t until Mann dropped a 3-pointer with 22 seconds remaining that Florida was able to put the game away.

“It shows who we are as a team, our character,” Castleton said. “We went through a lot of stuff off the court (this season), and this game today we went through a lot of stuff on the court. Whether that was missed free throws, or turnovers, I had a sloppy turnover at the end of the game. Fighting through adversity has been our motto all year. Coach White has done a tremendous job all year teaching us that.”

The Gators still haven’t returned to the glory days of the Billy Donovan era, or even White’s second season when they reached the Elite Eight in 2017, but somehow this season no longer feels like a step backward.

Considering the loss of Johnson in December and the attrition against Virginia Tech, it feels like the Gators made a statement Friday. And, for a change, it wasn’t inconclusive.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.