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Oral Roberts 81, Florida 78: Gators collapse in the clutch as Cinderella rises

Florida held the lead through much of a second half in which it couldn’t get a call. But not all of it.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oral Roberts at Florida Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

Florida’s Tre Mann lined up a three from 25 feet, leaning away from the basket. It caught rim, caromed into the hands of Scottie Lewis; he launched a corner three, high-arcing and desperate and no good.

And that, down three, was the proximal reason that Florida lost to Oral Roberts — sending a No. 15 seed to the Sweet Sixteen for the second time ever — 81-78 on Sunday night in Indianapolis.

But it wasn’t really why.

Let the legion of Florida fans who have no love for Mike White — who fell to a rather respectable 6-4 in NCAA Tournament play with the loss — tell it, and Florida lost this one by slowing down a game it led by 11 points midway through the second half, disrupting the offensive rhythm of a team that scored 65 points through its first 30 minutes and mustered just 13 in the final 10.

Or maybe Florida lost by shifting into a 1-3-1 zone that Oral Roberts punctured with a trio of big threes — one by star Kevin Obanor, but one each by Carlos Jurgens and DeShang Weaver — down the stretch. Or maybe it was Florida playing Osayi Osifo, a defensive stalwart whose offense is embryonic. Or maybe it was Florida being careless and dumb with the ball and its collective body parts, which led to 20 turnovers and 19 fouls that generated 23 free throws for one of the best foul-shooting teams in the country.

Let the Golden Eagles tell it, and this one is probably a tale of perseverance in the face of adversity, one in which Max Abmas and Obanor combining for 54 points — on 30 shots and 21 free throws — was the heavy lifting that allowed role players to come through late. The foul discrepancy? Florida’s lack of discipline and the Golden Eagles’ surfeit of it made that happen, and plays like the steal that was wrestled out of Colin Castleton’s mitts and the one that required Tyree Appleby to be obstructed and go sprawling were just good hustle.

This team, if you believe in it, is just that good and clutch, able to keep its cool no matter what misfortune befalls it.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Florida built its lead and then slowed its offense, yes, but it also held the Golden Eagles at arm’s length until the end of the game; it led by six with 4:44 to play, only to have a three and that run-out steal-and-layup slice that advantage to a single point before the last TV timeout. And while Castleton laid up a Mann miss to go back up three moments later, a touch foul on Mann gave Abmas two freebie free throws — he sank all of his 12 foul shots — and a similar one on Weaver that sent Osifo to the line for a one-and-one was effectively a forced turnover.

Florida would still take back the lead, though, on a Noah Locke jumper, and would have three chances to tie or take the lead after the Weaver three that put the Golden Eagles up 80-78 thanks to its defense holding Oral Roberts without a bucket in the final 2:10. The Gators just didn’t make those plays on offense when necessary.

And they were not as sharp as they could have been even while building their lead. This perpetually turnover-prone Florida team could have built bigger leads throughout the game by avoiding those errors, and could certainly have guarded its lead more zealously without three fouls on three-pointers.

But though Florida committed some admittedly dumb fouls, it also inarguably got less benefit from the officiating, shooting 14 fewer free throws — for a massive 12-point disparity at the line — and seeing things like Appleby being elbowed in the face in the first half and sent sprawling in the second go without a bleat.

Whatever the narrative that emerges, one can be sure it will be remembered and wielded for or against White and his program, one that has given so many fans so many servings of delight and frustration that it’s hard to see the fortified camps setting down arms.

For this Florida team, the group of players and coaches who went through an improbably hellish season beyond even the challenges of playing through a pandemic, finishing the year with the Sweet Sixteen so close and yet so far away is a cruel ending to a campaign in which their best was good enough often enough to prevail despite tremendous adversity on and off the floor.

But the Gators’ worst was bad enough to sink them on any given night — and they knew that, too. And on this most important night, it absolutely did.