That Florida won Friday afternoon’s basketball game is almost irrelevant, except it’s the NCAA tournament, and the whole point is to survive and move on.
The Gators achieved both with a 75-70 overtime victory over No.10 seed Virginia Tech at Hinkle Fieldhouse, but in the process they elevated their schedule in a way that even the success of March Madness can not.
Coach Mike White had his Norman Dale, my-team-is-on-the-floor occasion during the afternoon. It wasn’t a unique moment, other than when he chose to hold Omar Payne out of the game.
Payne injured Tennessee’s John Fulkerson with a vicious elbow in an SEC tournament game last week, a game which, due to a quirk in the rules, did not result in Payne being sent off. Florida lost that game and was eliminated, so punishing him during the conference tournament was not an option. If Florida were to do, in White’s words, “the right thing,” they would have to swallow hard and accept that it could cost the No.7 Gators a chance to advance in the NCAA.
“Definitely a teaching moment,” White told reporters. “It’s hard that he can’t play, obviously, but it was the right thing to do. Omar handled it like a champ. Omar has a lot of remorse. We all make mistakes. He’s a wonderful young man. And we were able to overcome, fortunately, without him.
White declined to say if Payne would return to activity during the second round of the tournament, although he was asked if there was a deal with Tennessee involving Payne as long as Fulkerson’s injury kept him out of action. .
During the 45 minutes of basketball between the Gators and the Hokies, White had to reinforce his difficult decision on several occasions.
– When point guard Tyree Applebee was lost in the second half because he inadvertently took an elbow in the head while playing defense – Applebee had a gash in his forehead which required stitches and did not come back – Payne remained on the bench, never removing his doctor mask while actively cheering on his teammates.
– When power forward Osayi Osifo fouled out of play with 1:49 remaining in rule.
– When power forward Anthony Duruji was disqualified for fouls with 2:50 in overtime, the Whites sent 6-5 freshman Niels Lane, who had played just five minutes in the final game of the ‘team.
“The quick decision with myself and the two available assistant coaches is… Which freshman wing do we put in there?” White told Sporting News. “He hasn’t played a lot during the season, let alone on this stage. At this point it’s “Hey: let’s mingle with the other guys and don’t make any mistakes.” And you probably wouldn’t have known it, probably, if you were a layman who just watched TV. Because he helped us a little later.
It’s not like Florida has decided to take an Al Horford-level player out of a tournament game, but Payne is contributing 16 minutes, 3.7 points and 3.2 rebounds per game. Oh, and 1.3 blocks, which is pretty big for a guy coming off the bench. He certainly would have helped against Virginia Tech.
The Gators had their moments when it looked like the little push that Payne’s presence could have provided was going to be missing. They failed to get the ball into bounds and returned it on a 5 second count with 48 seconds left and a 3 point lead. Duruji missed two free throws with 7.8 seconds left, one of which could have earned a victory without the extra five minutes being necessary. And someone failed to take custody of Virginia Tech Nahiem Alleyne after Duruji’s missed foul shots gave the Hokies one final shot on an even 3-pointer.
The Gators did not choose to commit a foul to avoid a tie. Alleyne managed to throw an undisputed 23-footer from the right wing – even though he had scored the Hokies’ previous nine points – and force overtime. He would be the first player to keep in this situation, but that didn’t happen.
Florida won, however, because center Collin Castleton delivered 19 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks, a magnificent performance that included 7 of 8 shots under the pressure of the big game. Wing Scottie Lewis came off the bench to score 15 points. And point guard Tre Mann hit right wing three that virtually secured the advance with 24 seconds left in OT.
“We made it a little more interesting than needed, sure, but we showed tremendous resilience to bounce back and find a way to win in overtime,” White said. “This team continues to show character.”
The players weren’t the only ones wearing Florida colors to have done so.