The Florida Gators have done virtually nothing the easy way in this season of tumult.
Why start in the 2021 NCAA Tournament — especially when their usual embrace of adversity and chaos produced one of the best games of the year, and a dramatic win?
Behind the steady dominance of Colin Castleton and a couple of huge shots by Tre Mann, steel-spined Florida prevailed over an equally determined and unshakable Virginia Tech team in overtime, 75-70, in the tournament’s first round on Friday.
Playing in the day’s first game, the Gators got off to a slow start, eventually trailing the Hokies 21-11 midway through the first half after five straight threes from Hunter Cattoor and Naheim Alleyne. The Gators would close to within a point before halftime, but the Hokies re-stretched the advantage as well, ultimately leading 33-27 at the break.
After it, Florida upped the intensity. An immediate steal and run-out from Tyree Appleby set the tone for an early push, and while the Hokies pushed the lead back to eight points again at 44-36, it would never be that wide afterward, even though Appleby took an inadvertent elbow that left him bleeding from the head and knocked him from the game.
A steady diet of post entries to Castleton helped him pound the Hokies down low, and a surprising showing from Scottie Lewis — who had struggled mightily entering the game, and did so for much of the first half — served as Florida’s supplementary scoring in the second stanza, allowing the Gators to chip away at the Hokies’ lead and then build their own.
Lewis finished with 15 points, four boards, three assists, and two steals, and his second three in the second half gave him twice as many as every other Gator combined to that point.
A stepback three by Mann pushed the advantage to 59-53 with just 2:50 to play, and it appeared that Florida might have enough to pull away from that juncture.
But the Hokies had other ideas, and made one last push — even after Castleton, who ended up with an absurd stat line of 19 points, 13 rebounds, three blocks, and two assists rarely posted in NCAA Tournament play, rejected a Tyrece Radford (18 points) dunk attempt at the rim with just more than a minute to play.
That led to a 1-for-2 trip to the line by Anthony Duruji, which in turn enabled the Hokies to get within three on an Alleyne jumper; a Florida turnover on a five-seconds call on an inbounds attempt gave the Hokies the possession necessary to cut the lead to one.
And even Lewis hitting two free throws and Castleton closing out on an Alleyne miss with 11 seconds to play would only lead to Duruji hitting the foul line with two free throws to cinch the affair — something he failed to do, providing the Hokies with the time to make their last great play of the day. Off Duruji’s second miss, Keve Aluma found Alleyne and Alleyne — who poured in a career-high 28 points on the day — found a game-tying triple.
Overtime would prove kinder to the Gators — thanks largely to Duruji setting the tone.
Lewis found him on a roll to the rim on Florida’s first possession, and he slammed a poster-worthy dunk home over Aluma, sending Tech’s best big to the bench with five fouls. While the Hokies would answer again, Castleton mustered Florida’s next five points inside, and then Mann hit another stepback three — this one very reminiscent of Michael Jordan’s legendary push-off of Bryon Russell in the 1998 NBA Finals — to seal the game with under a minute left to play.
With the victory, Florida extends its streak of wins in the first round to eight, and improves Mike White’s unbeaten record in those games to 4-0.
Their reward is likely to be one of the tournament’s best teams — No. 2 seed Ohio State — on Sunday. But for a day, the Gators — the first team to win a first round game this year — can bask in the glory of having come through a classic on the winning end.