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Florida 72, Ole Miss 63: Gators’ furious close shuts down Rebels

Another huge night from Colin Castleton helped the Gators avoid a three-game losing streak.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Down their two most talented players and six points in the O’Dome, the Florida Gators had a choice on Tuesday night: Keep fighting against the Ole Miss Rebels, whose tenacious defense and excellent shot-making had dug the hole the Gators were in, or succumb in the face of the visitors’ efforts, and end up in a shallow grave.

The Gators chose to fight. And they won the fight, too.

Florida blitzed and blanked the Rebels with a 20-2 closing surge — including a 14-0 run to end the game — that turned a contest Ole Miss had mostly controlled since halftime into the most unlikely Gators win of the year, a 72-63 triumph that came from commitment.

Colin Castleton, the unlikely star of this season, was the primary reason why Florida held out and held off the Rebels, pouring in 21 points and adding 10 rebounds and seven blocks — the latter the most by a Gator since the days of Al Horford patrolling the paint. Castleton’s scoring throughout the second half buoyed the Gators when they were in danger of sinking, and his converted and-one that spanned the final media timeout brought Florida answered a pair of free throws by Romello White and drew the Gators within a bucket of the Rebels at 63-61.

From there on in, Ole Miss wouldn’t score — and Florida tightening the screws on defense paid dividends, with Castleton slapping one layup attempt off the backboard, led to a go-ahead Noah Locke three on a fast break. After a steal, Locke missed his next three, a would-be dagger from the corner, and Florida’s lead was fortunate to survive a fruitless trip to the line by Luis Rodriguez, but Tre Mann put the home team a full triple ahead on a slithering drive with a difficult finish, then converted four straight free throws — thanks in part to a bizarrely-timed outburst by Kermit Davis that prompted a technical foul on the Ole Miss coach — to put the game out of reach.

Mann’s 17 points and Locke’s 15 combined with Castleton’s output for the majority of Florida’s scoring on a night when Keyontae Johnson continued his “Coach Key” role after a December collapse and Scottie Lewis was nowhere to be seen, held out and away from the Gators due to health and safety protocols.

But scraping for every point was enough on this evening, and little things — Florida making 22 of 26 free throws, for one — helped make the difference in a game that the Rebels seemed poised to claim. Ole Miss built a six-point lead with a strong start to the second half that featured Mike White spiking his COVID-19 protocol-mandated face mask to the ground and getting a technical after a seeming blown call, and kept answering the Gators’ stabs at that lead, eventually leading by nine after a string of tough shots fell for Devontae Shuler (19 points in a rut-breaking performance) and others in the second half.

With 6:12 remaining, Mike White called timeout after the run-out Shuler layup that got Ole Miss that largest lead — and that’s where Florida’s 20-2 run would begin, with Mann immediately getting two points back at the line and a switch from a 1-3-1 zone that the Rebels thwarted with shot-making back to man defense that would stymie them entirely down the stretch.

Ole Miss didn’t make a field goal in that final 6:12, and didn’t score in the final 4:32 of play.

For Florida, this sort of gumption and grit was a welcome surprise after largely listless second halves against Alabama and Kentucky a week ago — and even if it’s not realistic for this team to rally like this against much of the rest of the SEC, these Gators finding ways to win in a season when nothing will be easy is stirring stuff.