MORGANTOWN, WEST VIRGINIA — With Florida and West Virginia deadlocked at 70 and entering the final round, Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” blared through the speakers at WVU Coliseum.
Florida and West Virginia went blow for blow Saturday afternoon, trading clutch shots and rebounds while leaning on their heavyweights. Balboa and Creed were replaced by Gators center Colin Castleton and WVU big man Derek Culver, scoring 21 and 27 points, respectively.
West Virginia, the favorites, bullied the Gators in the interior from the opening tip as Culver scored 21 first-half points on a perfect shooting performance.
But it was Castleton who steadily swished shot after shot during the second half. With the game on a knife’s edge inside the final three minutes, the Michigan transfer fought through Culver, secured a loose ball and drove down the lane for an and-one finish to put UF up six.
The Mountaineers kept swinging via a three from junior Sean McNeil and a Culver put-back, dragging the game to within one. But a pair of Castleton free throws preceded a stout defensive possession, and the Gators will return to Gainesville with a Quad 1 victory, beating West Virginia 85-80 in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge for their fourth-straight win.
The sub-freezing temperatures in Morgantown, West Virginia, drew both teams to the interior early on. Payne’s alley-oop slam and Castleton’s short-range jump-shot were answered by a dunk from Culver and a turnaround post move from McBride.
Jumpers from McBride and junior Noah Locke opened up the floor a little bit, but Gators center Jason Jitoboh powered to the rim from the left block to tie the game at eight and mark an 80% shooting start from both sides.
Florida and West Virginia both pride themselves on fast-paced basketball and stingy defense, so the chippy, stop-start nature of the first half came as little surprise. No one benefitted from this pace more than Culver, who knocked down nine first-half free throws and finished the stanza a perfect 6-6 from the field.
“Culver was amazing in the first half to say the least,” Florida coach Mike White said. “He can be so dominant when he gets a lot of touches.”
Florida filled up the hoop by a committee in the first half, with Locke and sophomore Tyree Appleby serving as standout contributors. The duo erased a one-point deficit with a pair of free throws before sophomore Scottie Lewis flew down the floor in transition and rattled the rim with a thunderous, one-handed alley-oop.
Lewis’ flush capped off a 6-2 run and marked Florida’s largest lead of the afternoon, but UF went ice cold offensively after an Appleby layup, failing to score a field goal in the final 4:52 of
the half. The sharp-shooting of McNeil and the interior dominance of Culver inspired a 13-5 WVU run to close the half, allowing the Mountaineers to take a 42-37 lead into the break.
Florida’s first-half defense was oriented around doubling ball screens and preventing entry passes, a strategy which saw a lot of Culver’s missed rotations and allowed WVU to shoot 48% from the field.
White implored for a greater level of toughness from his team in the second half. Florida’s late-game turnaround was based on stiff defense — allowing just 33% shooting out of the locker room and denying Culver opportunities to dominate in the interior.
“It was much better,” White said on UF’s second-half defense. “Everyone that played I thought was more lively defensively. We were quicker to the ball, I thought he [Culver] got a few less touches based on some perimeter tracing of the ball.”
Prospective all-SEC candidate Tre Mann showed his explosiveness after a quiet first half, hitting a deadly jab-step from the top of the key and swishing a triple before knocking down another deep-ball from the right wing.
Locke repeated the feat minutes later, draining a transition three from the corner to give UF its first lead of the half. An acrobatic layup from Lewis capped off an 8-0 run and set up a thrilling finish. In a game dripping with March Madness atmosphere, the two teams answered every bell going down to the wire.
After two offensive rebounds, guard Tez Sherman knocked down a catch-and-shoot three from the wing, bringing WVU within one with five minutes to go.
Appleby continued to torment the WVU defense, beating his defender off the dribble and kicking out to Lewis for a long-distance connection. Castleton’s and-one created a summit too high for the Mountaineers to climb and Gators escaped with a hard-fought victory.
Florida will return to action Wednesday, welcoming South Carolina to the O’Connell Center. Tip-off is set for 6:30 p.m. and will stream on the SEC Network.
Contact Declan Walsh at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @declanaw