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Florida 71, FSU 55: Gators’ toughness, defense cue key triumph

For seven years, Florida was on the losing end of a physical, emotional rivalry. They got back to the right side of it by pouring physicality and emotion into their game.

NCAA Basketball: Florida State at Florida Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

It was over before the last minute. Florida had its win over Florida State — its unbeatable nemesis for seven years and seven painful losses, the historical younger brother in the state both gutting out wins and playing big brother in blowouts in both Gainesville and Tallahassee — secured, even its final 71-55 margin in place.

Still, after a steal, Tyree Appleby launched a three — no good. And Florida got an offensive rebound by virtue of Anthony Duruji leaping for it and Brandon McKissic diving on the loose ball that followed.

So Appleby launched another three — and Florida got that offensive board, too, with Colin Castleton working to the right spot amidst FSU’s towering frontcourt to get it.

That was Castleton’s career-high 16th rebound and career-high eighth offensive rebound, and Florida’s 17th. And both that rebound and Duruji’s — and everything else in that last minute — were emblematic of the effort that got the Gators one of their most satisfying wins on a basketball court in years.

From the tip — won by Castleton, of course — Florida seemed like a team animated by the idea that this was a must-win game. Mike White’s brigade played ferocious defense early on, fueling a 8-2 start, and would not cede ground to the Seminoles easily in the first half, though FSU did tie the game with a 10-4 run and take a four-point lead with a 6-2 spurt.

But when FSU got back up four in the final minute of the half, Florida got an offensive rebound and putback from Castleton to cut the halftime edge to 30-28.

And after the break, Florida had counters for every FSU punch.

A three to go up 35-32? Answered 22 seconds later by one from McKissic.

A tough jumper to put FSU up 44-43? Florida embarked on a game-swinging 12-0 run over the next three minutes, prying away three steals and recording one block while not conceding a basket or an offensive rebound.

Signs of life that cut the Florida lead to 10? The Gators stomped those out with a 7-0 run that made the final few minutes a matter of managing the margin of victory.

Castleton and Duruji — who was as active as he’s ever been as a Gator, and breathtaking both as an athlete and a hustler — led all Florida players with 15 points, but Jones and McKissic each had 12 to make it four starters in double figures for the Gators, and Phlandrous Fleming scratched together nine points off the bench.

Five Gators had three or more rebounds for Florida, which had 17 offensive rebounds and allowed just nine to the team that led the nation in offensive rebounding percentage entering the day.

Florida earned edges in every single box score category except three-point percentage, in fact, shooting better from the floor and the line while also having more rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals than the Seminoles, and fewer personal fouls and turnovers.

Only three of Florida’s 71 points were scored by a player recruited to Mike White’s program as a freshman, but those three belonged to Virginian point guard Elijah Kennedy, whose triple in the first half came at a timely moment.

Surely, that was also a moment of welcome happiness for Keyontae Johnson, a fellow Virginian and non-transfer Gator who did not get to beat Florida State through his first three years, twice because of fair competition and once because of the unfairest fate.

But Johnson was integrally involved in this year’s game despite being on the sideline in a t-shirt and sweatpants, clapping for his teammates and sitting right next to Florida’s coaches by game’s end. And when the final horn sounded after that magical minute of scrapping to cap off maybe the most important win of White’s tenure outside of an NCAA Tournament, Johnson and his coach found each other for the sort of hug that said more than any words they could have exchanged ever will.

For Florida, on this day, it was a key win, earned by unlocking secrets to beating a program that had become its better in recent years.

For Key, on this day and forever more, it is a win he can know he deserves — and his brothers earning it in his stead is one more reason that he can love them forever.