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Florida 81, Oklahoma State 72: Gators rescue themselves, stage rally spurred by defense

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Florida spent a half almost totally unable to get a stop. Then it put a stop to that.

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

Walking into the locker room down 45-32 to an Oklahoma State squad that was scalding from the floor for the first 20 minutes and staring down a third loss in a week, the Florida Gators — depleted and defenseless — could have been forgiven for giving up.

They and Mike White did nothing of the sort.

Fueled by defense-first substitutions that in turn turbocharged their pressure in the second half, the Gators stormed back from a double-digit deficit to down the Cowboys, 81-72, and save their season from spiraling further from the possibility of NCAA Tournament contention than it already was.

Tyree Appleby handled much of the scoring load for Florida, pumping in 21 points and dishing four assists. But his quick hands were also good for three steals of the Gators’ 11, and the Florida defense taking over after intermission yielded three other double-digit scorers and six players who had eight or more points other than Appleby.

Yet the single most meaningful contribution on the day might have come from a player who finished with zero points, assists, and rebounds, as little-used sophomore Niels Lane’s insertion after halftime helped Florida remake the game. Lane’s tenacious defense helped strengthen Florida’s efforts to stop penetration by the Cowboys that had generated their huge first half — an explosion for 45 points built by scalding shooting of better than 60 percent from the floor and 70 percent from three.

After halftime, Florida defenders sagged to the hoop to wall it off as a team and floated into passing lanes to generate turnovers, and the Cowboys’ shooting cooled considerably, with just one of eight threes launched after halftime finding the bottom of the net.

And even that one — made by Bryce Thompson with 1:36 to play, and good for briefly cutting Florida’s lead to six — didn’t matter much.

By then, Florida had already taken a good early counterpunch from the Cowboys — an and-one off a turnover in response to the Gators post-halftime spurt getting the lead back to single digits — and rolled with it, and had pushed past Oklahoma State scrapping to keep its lead with back-to-back threes from Phlandrous Fleming and Myreon Jones to take a 58-56 lead that they would never relinquish.

After those 45 points in the first half, Oklahoma State would score just 16 in the first 17:36 of play in the second half — and Florida, in the same span, more than matched its output from the first period of play.

The Gators still didn’t shoot particularly well from the field, making just 40 percent of their shots and 32 percent of their threes, but they were excellent from the line, sinking 33 of 41 free throws, and no Gator missed more than two freebies.

And getting anything consistently on offense is going to be key for this team, which played perimeter-oriented ball without Colin Castleton and Jason Jitoboh, hoisting 31 of their 47 shots from long range. C.J. Felder playing just two minutes and Tuongthach Gatkek getting just two shot attempts put Florida’s identity in sharp relief.

But that identity as realized in the second half allowed the Gators to steal a game that they had no business winning through 20 minutes. And while Oklahoma State won’t play in the 2022 NCAA Tournament due to penalties being served for NCAA violations, the Cowboys have a tournament-quality squad that has beaten Baylor and Texas and is sitting at .500 more because of close losses and a brutal schedule than any great failings.

A home win over that team, in turn, doesn’t boost Florida’s own March Madness hopes much — maybe it gets the Gators to a higher rung of “last teams in” groupings.

But for a program that needed proof of concept and a restoration of spirit without Castleton and Jitoboh, it’s a start. And, as always, it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative.