The Florida Gators got their first taste of March Madness in two years on Friday, and almost downed as much bitter as they bit of the sweet.
Florida rallied late to take back a lead that Virginia Tech had held for almost the entire game, then let a six-point advantage slip thanks to a five-second violation, missed free throws, and a Naheim Alleyne three with seconds to go. But the Gators prevailed in overtime, with a thunderous Anthony Duruji dunk setting the tone and a Tre Mann three staking the Hokies, and earned a first-round win in the men’s NCAA Tournament for their fourth consecutive appearance.
And later on Friday, their path to the Sweet Sixteen seemed to open up considerably, as No. 15 seed Oral Roberts shot down No. 2 seed Ohio State to set up the Gators’ second second-round matchup with a No. 15 seed in less than a decade.
But the Golden Eagles did not fluke into their win over the Buckeyes, and will present a significant challenge for Florida.
The Florida rally on Friday was like many others in the last few years by these Gators: Gritty, fueled by defense and timely shooting, and accomplished despite adversity. In that game, the adversity far exceeded the baseline for the year — Keyontae Johnson coaching in sweats rather than catching lobs in shorts — thanks to Omar Payne being all but nominally suspended after his ejection for a flagrant foul of Tennessee’s John Fulkerson in the SEC Tournament and Tyree Appleby catching an elbow to the skull that left him bleeding on the court early in the second half.
Florida persevered without two starter-caliber players, mostly due to Scottie Lewis stepping up and Colin Castleton taking over, but the Gators could do themselves — and the skittish Florida fan base — a world of good by jumping on Oral Roberts early.
Doing that will likely require mostly shutting down a perimeter attack that is among the nation’s best. Max Abmas keys the ORU attack, scalded Ohio State for 29 thanks to five threes, and hasn’t scored fewer than 18 points in an outing since mid-January or come out of the Golden Eagles’ last four games, so Florida will know the primary threat well. But when Abmas dishes, it can be to big man Kevin Obanor or tweener Kareem Thompson, each of whom is also shooting better than 40 percent from three. The trio combined to make 10 of 25 threes against the Buckeyes, and Florida will obviously be trying to give up less than that from distance — something it’s done well this year, as teams have mustered makes on just barely better than 30 percent of threes against the Gators.
Forcing Abmas to drive is also forcing him to confront the Gators’ defensive strength, a back line of blockers led by Castleton that ranks in the top 15 nationally in block percentage. With Castleton, Duruji, Lewis, and possibly Payne available inside, Florida should make the undersized Eagles think twice about drives.
And if Florida can hold its own defensively and play even an average offensive game, the Gators should be in good shape. They come in with a similar shooting profile to Ohio State, which hit just five of 23 threes and struggled from midrange; surpassing that performance is doable, though doing it while also limiting turnovers has been the Gators’ Achilles heel on offense. If Appleby is limited, the surer-handed Mann taking a larger share of possessions might be a blessing in disguise — especially as he should be able to drive successfully against smaller Golden Eagles guards.
Ohio State was upset-prone in a way that Florida — which boasts the sort of perimeter defense that smashes slippers in March — is not, though the Gators have their own weaknesses, like carelessness with the ball, to worry about. Oral Roberts also played an excellent game against the Buckeyes, hitting plenty of threes to offset a really poor performance inside the arc.
And that got the Golden Eagles just a three-point overtime win.
Florida should be able to disrupt some of the Oral Roberts passing with its length and aggressiveness on defense, and is more used to the Golden Eagles’ pace than the Buckeyes were. And Florida’s history of handing Cinderella — from George Mason to Norfolk State to Florida Gulf Coast to Dayton — is testament to a program that tightens its screws come Tournament time.
In the end, it might be as simple as Oral Roberts not having anyone to effectively check Mann. But Florida has too many advantages to pick against the Gators.
Florida 75, Oral Roberts 63
How to Watch
In a flip from their first game, Florida’s now on the least-familiar channel in the family of Turner networks that broadcasts the men’s NCAA Tournament, truTV. The game’s primetime-ready tipoff is set for 7:45 p.m. Eastern.
If you want to watch the online stream, that’s available through the always wonderful March Madness Live. Simply log in with your TV provider’s credentials and you’ll be able to flip between all of the action in progress on Sunday night.
And if you don’t have a TV or cable provider, you should be able to catch this game on March Madness Live through the Paramount Plus streaming service, which has a one-month free trial.
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