The script for a frustrating Florida loss was half-written at halftime. The Gators had been thrown off their game by dozens of whistles, seen a small lead ceded to the hungrier and burlier team, and generally lost their grip on a game they were competing hard to win.
After halftime, Florida flipped that script — and upended West Virginia, 85-80, for a victory that brands the Gators as an NCAA Tournament-caliber team.
Colin Castleton had 21 points, seven rebounds, and five blocks, and four threes helped Noah Locke score 19 points, but all 11 Gators who played scored, with depth helping them erase a five-point halftime deficit in a grueling game that featured 45 fouls and 61 free throws. Key to that depth were Tre Mann and Scottie Lewis, who hit crucial threes in the second half to cancel out West Virginia’s duo of Derek Culver (28 points, 12 boards) and Sam McNeil (21 points and five threes off the bench).
Lewis also made maybe the play of the game on the defensive end, poking a ball out of Mountaineer sniper Taz Sherman’s hands while up 83-80 with under a minute to go and ultimately forcing Sherman to settle for a halfcourt heave rather than a better potential game-tying shot. Tyree Appleby would corral the rebound and make the last of Florida’s 25 free throws to give the game its final margin.
But this was a day for many Gators to make plays here and there.
Omar Payne started the day with an alley-oop dunk and had another on a second-half possession that began with chaos. Appleby had 12 points, seven assists, five boards, and three steals — and never really showed any signs of frustration after a bad call wiped out a three that he appeared to have been fouled on for what refs saw as a flop.
Osayi Osifo had an important putback and four rebounds; Samson Ruzhentshev made two free throws after being fouled on a three; Jason Jitoboh played crucial minutes as a stabilizing force inside that helped slow Culver, who had 21 of his points in the first half. And Florida’s developing depth — the Gators have seen their frontcourt rotation grow to include Jitoboh and a larger role for Payne, and more minutes have gone to Osifo or Ruzhentshev over Anthony Duruji depending on game situations — has this team looking like it is close to replicating most of what the do-everything Keyontae Johnson gave it prior to his stunning collapse in December.
These Gators would have been forgiven — by most, anyway — for having that tragedy and the trauma associated with it knock them from their path. Instead, the loss of Johnson — and three straight losses in SEC play in which he could do nothing but watch and exhort his teammates — seems like it may have inspired a fighting spirit that animates this team when it needs it and makes Florida as game a foe as any in the SEC.
On this Saturday, after scaling some Mountaineers, the Gators have every reason to believe they can compete in the SEC — and for prizes beyond it.
They just need to keep working like it. Yanking on ropes and digging in heels is going to yield wins that are there for the taking.