That Florida won the Friday afternoon basketball game is almost beside the point, except that this is the NCAA Tournament, and the overall goal is to survive and advance.
The Gators accomplished both with a 75-70 overtime victory over No. 10 seed Virginia Tech at Hinkle Fieldhouse, but in the process elevated their program in ways that even the success of March Madness cannot.
Coach Mike White had his own Norman Dale chance, my team is on the court during the course of the afternoon. It was not a unique moment, except when he decided to exclude Omar Payne from the game.
Payne had injured Tennessee’s John Fulkerson with a violent elbow during an SEC Tournament game last week, a play that, due to a quirk in the rules, did not result in an expulsion for Payne. Florida lost that game and was eliminated, so punishing him during the conference tournament was not an option. If Florida was going to do, in White’s words, “the right thing,” it would have to swallow hard and accept that it could cost the No. 7 seeded Gators a chance to advance in the NCAA.
“Definitely a teachable moment,” White told reporters. “It’s difficult that I can’t play, obviously, but it was the right thing to do. Omar handled it like a champion. Omar is very sorry. We all make mistakes. He is a great young man. And we were able to overcome, fortunately, without him ”.
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White declined to say whether Payne would return to activity during the second round of the tournament, although he was asked if there is a deal with Tennessee that involves Payne sitting while Fulkerson’s injury keeps him out of action.
During the course of 45 minutes of basketball between the Gators and Hokies, White had to reinforce his difficult decision many times.
– When point guard Tyree Applebee was lost in the second half because he was accidentally elbowed to the head while playing defense – Applebee had a cut on his forehead that required stitches and did not return – Payne remained on the bench, without taking off never his doctor mask but actively cheering on his teammates.
– When power forward Osayi Osifo left the game with a 1:49 foul in regulation time.
– When power forward Anthony Duruji was disqualified for fouls with 2:50 in overtime, White sent rookie Niels Lane 6-5, who had played just five minutes in the team’s most recent game.
“The quick decision for me and the two available assistant coaches is … which freshman wing do we put in there?” White told Sporting News. “He hasn’t played much in the final stretch of the season, much less on this stage. At that point, it’s ‘Hey: let’s mix with the other guys and make no mistakes.’ And you probably wouldn’t have known it if you were a layman who only watched television. Because it helped us a bit down the stretch. “
Not that Florida decided to withdraw an Al Horford player from tournament play, but Payne contributes 16 minutes, 3.7 points and 3.2 rebounds per game. Oh, and 1.3 blocks, which is pretty strong for a guy coming off the bench. It would have helped against Virginia Tech, almost certainly.
The Gators had their moments where it seemed like the little boost that Payne’s presence might have provided was going to be lost. They were unable to get the ball in bounds and flipped it over on a 5-second count with 48 seconds remaining and a 3-point lead. Duruji missed two free throws with 7.8 seconds to go, either of which could have scored a victory without the additional five minutes being necessary. And someone couldn’t pick up Virginia Tech guard Nahiem Alleyne after Duruji’s missed free kicks gave the Hokies one final triple-tying shot.
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The Gators did not choose to foul to avoid a tie. Alleyne was able to throw an indisputable 23-foot from the right wing, even though he had scored the Hokies’ previous nine points, and force overtime. That would be the first player to score in that situation, but it didn’t happen.
Florida prevailed, however, as center Collin Castleton surrendered 19 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks, a magnificent performance that included 7 of 8 free kicks under pressure from a great game. Wing Scottie Lewis came off the bench to score 15 points. And point guard Tre Mann hit the three on the right wing that nearly secured the lead with 24 seconds left in overtime.
“We made it a little more interesting than we needed, of course, but we showed tremendous stamina to bounce back and find a way to win in overtime,” White said. “This team just continues to show character.”
Players weren’t the only ones wearing Florida colors to do so.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.