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Florida 71, Ohio State 68: Tyree Appleby’s buzzer-beater puts exclamation point on thriller

Florida fought and fought and fought on a night it did not have its best game. And you know what? That worked out.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Florida Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Florida shot 37 percent from the floor against Ohio State on Wednesday night. Ohio State’s E.J. Liddell was clearly the best player on the court, putting up 23 points, five rebounds, and five blocks, and thoroughly outdueling Colin Castleton (11 points and 13 rebounds, but with three assists uncharacteristically being his best contributions) in the process. The Gators missed 10 free throws — a large number even of the 33 awarded — and went 4-for-14 from three, ending up with almost as many offensive rebounds (16) as made shots (22).

But in the last minute, they were still in it — and so, when the guy wearing No. 22 made shot No. 22, they got one of the most thrilling wins of the young college basketball season.

Tyree Appleby’s three as time expired capped an amazing final minute for Florida, which trailed by as many as 10 points in the game and by a 61-56 margin with just more than five minutes to go. After a foul on Phlandrous Fleming — one that proved arguable on replay, even though it stood — got Zed Key to the line, where he made one of two free throws to put the Buckeyes up 68-66 with 46 seconds remaining, Florida ran an audacious play for an Anthony Duruji lob with about 40 seconds to go.

And Duruji threw it home to tie the game.

Then, on a final possession of the manic, marvelous defense it had played all night, Florida forced one of Liddell’s few misses, Myreon Jones chased down the rebound, and Appleby took a pass up the sideline from him and put an exclamation point on one of the best finishes in recent Gators history.

For Appleby and Jones, those were clutch plays on largely frustrating nights: They combined for 15 points on 17 shots, each making only one three.

But then, this was a night on which virtually every Gator did something important despite few things going their way.

Phlandrous Fleming had the best scoring night, with 19 points off the bench, but played through what appeared to be a minor injury late and compensated for an inexplicable turnover in which the ball simply slipped out of his hands.

Castleton could never get in gear against Liddell, Key, and the towering Joey Brunk, but his 13 rebounds were yeoman’s boards, and he both went coast-to-coast for a big bucket in the first half and threw a slick behind-the-back pass for an assist in the second.

Brandon McKissic went 1-for-5 from distance and scored just six points, but also made one of his best hustle plays yet as a Gator — no small feat — by both diving for a loose ball and then getting up and chasing it into a corner to throw it off a Buckeye.

And Duruji and C.J. Felder, who took turns giving up size to the larger Buckeyes down low, made their marks despite those mismatches, with Duruji’s best play coming on the game-tying dunk and Felder’s 10 points off the bench proving vital.

For Florida, which trailed for the majority of the game and faced season-high deficits along the way, this was a win earned with willingness to sweat, resilience, fire, and desire — traits that Mike White’s teams have collectively had at their best.

The difference, this year, is that there’s no one Gator providing that.

They all do.