Ole Miss took a 30-21 lead into halftime against the Florida Gators on Saturday, using the same mixture of reactive zone defense to coax misses from the Gators’ spotty shooters and strong shot-making that worked in their 70-54 win last Monday in Oxford to put Florida back on its heels again — even with Colin Castleton’s sneakers once again touching the court for the Gators.
But when Florida ratcheted up its defensive intensity, made shots, and went just about the entire second half without giving any Rebel a reason to yell, the Gators finally turned the tables — and their defense and resilience were just about enough to grind out a 62-57 overtime victory.
Castleton, who had 17 points, seven rebounds, and three blocks in his first game after missing six fixtures with a left shoulder injury that clearly bothered him throughout this contest, was a big help for Florida in that second half, as he helped the Gators establish an inside-out game that helped generate looks at three-pointers that actually fell. And Kowacie Reeves, Phlandrous Fleming, and Myreon Jones all made big threes after the break.
But Florida ultimately won this game by shutting off an Ole Miss offense that had made six threes — three by Matthew Murrell — before halftime, answering Florida’s couple of surges with big shots and ball movement. The Rebels did not score after halftime until the 14:37 mark — on a single free throw — and did not make a field goal in the first 10 minutes of the second half. scored just 18 points in the second half, fewest of any Florida opponent this season.
And that took closing the half on a 6-0 run that left the game tied at the end of regulation, Tyree Appleby’s clean chance at a game-winning three scuttled by him slipping and instead trying to shoot while falling on his rear.
In overtime, Appleby would make up for that, a couple of other late errors, and a relatively quiet day as a scorer. He had half of Florida’s 14 points in the extra session, all seven coming at the line, and also assisted on two of the Gators’ three overtime field goals to get an improbable double-double (10 points, 10 assists) out of a day on which he went 1-for-10 from the field.
And Castleton bowed up, too, finishing on the much smaller Murrell early and getting the only unassisted bucket of OT on a lovely turnaround to put Florida up six.
The Rebels made a last push even after a rainbow three from Jones pushed the Gators’ lead to a game-high nine points, scoring seven points in the last 35 seconds. But they never held the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead after falling behind 54-50 in overtime, with Florida scrambling valiantly after a turnover on an inbounds play to challenge a three that would have halved its advantage.
And so Florida escaped — slowly, painstakingly, and with few style points — the fate it had to avoid, a second loss to an Ole Miss team that would have served as another bête noire on its NCAA Tournament resume.
Having Castleton back and bringing him back to the best health possible will certainly continue to help these Gators, too. And he knows — just as the rest of them do — that they will continue to have chances to make the Big Dance, so long as they keep fighting.