INDIANAPOLIS — No. 7 seed Florida had the Sweet 16 well in sight but stumbled down the stretch, blowing multiple double-digit leads before losing to Oral Roberts 81-78 Sunday in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament.
The win makes the Golden Eagles (18-10) just the second No. 15 seed to advance to the round of 16. Florida Gulf Coast — those guys from Dunk City near Fort Myers — did it in 2013.
A jump shot by Noah Locke with 9:48 remaining gave the Gators (15-10) a 67-56 lead, but they soon fell into one of their signature offensive funks, and their sloppy play caught up with them.
“Hard-fought game, really emotional season for these guys,” coach Mike White said. “These guys are crushed.”
Kevin Obanor scored 28 and Max Abmas, the nation’s top scorer in the regular season, finished with 26 as Oral Roberts closed the game on a 25-11 run.
“They were terrific,” White said of the Golden Eagles. “What a story.”
The Oral Roberts fans inside Indiana Famers Coliseum chanted “Cinderella” during a wild celebration after the victory.
“It’s really just mind blowing,” Obanor said. “We’re grateful.”
The Golden Eagles, who trailed by as much as 11 in the second half, won their seventh straight. Next up for the Summit League tournament champions, who eliminated No. 2 seed Ohio State in the first round, is a matchup with No. 3 Arkansas next weekend.
“As I told the guys, we’re not going to let somebody put a number in front of our name and tell us that that’s our worth or that’s our value,” Oral Roberts coach Paul Mills said. “We’re not capitulating to anybody here.”
The Golden Eagles took a 77-76 lead — its first since late in the first half — on Obanor’s basket with less than three minutes remaining. Locke answered for the Gators, but DeShang Weaver, who missed his first five shots, hit an open 3 for an 80-78 lead with 2:08 left.
Florida had a chance but failed to get good shots on its final few possessions. The Gators had a pair of turnovers, Locke missed a corner 3 and after Obanor split free throws, difficult 3-pointers by Tre Mann and Scottie Lewis were off line.
Mann led the Gators with 19 points but went quiet late in the second half, failing to score over the final 17 minutes. “I just missed shots,” the All-SEC guard said. “We made the same plays we did in the first half. I got the same shots. I just missed shots. I didn’t get the wide-open looks I was getting.”
Locke finished with 17 points, and Colin Castleton and Tyree Appleby both added 14 for the Gators. But there will be plenty of anger and frustration after losing in the second round for the third straight NCAA appearance in a game Florida will felt it gave away.
The Gators shot 55 percent, outrebounded the smaller Golden Eagles 37-24 and had 42 points in the paint, but UF committed 20 turnovers and had just three made baskets over the final 9½ minutes.
White was worried about fatigue with his players and playing slower backfired.
“We were tired. These guys get you in rotation. I was hoping slowing it down would help us make better decisions,” he said. “We made some erratic decisions. We made some passes that boy I wish we had back.”
“You’re not going to beat a good team with 20 turnovers,” Mann said.
One of the biggest decisions of the game came with 3:11 left after Oral Roberts pulled within 76-75. The Golden Eagles fouled Florida’s Osayi Osifo, a 50 percent free-throw shooter on the season, as soon as the ball got in his hands. He missed the front end of a one-and-one and Obanor scored to give Oral Roberts the lead.
UF suffered its first loss to a double-digit seed in the tournament since a 2004 defeat to No. 12 Manhattan, a stretch of 17 games in the tourney for the Gators.
Florida had Appleby back on the floor after sustaining a gash on his head against Virginia Tech that knocked him out of the game. The Gators also had Omar Payne back after he was held out by a coach’s decision for the opener. Payne was ejected from the SEC quarterfinals for his elbows to the face against Tennessee’s John Fulkerson, who suffered a concussion and facial fracture.
The Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press contributed to this report.