With two minutes left, Florida basketball’s opening-round win in the NCAA tournament seemed guaranteed as center Colin Castleton swatted a layup attempt into the hardwood.
But throughout the next two minutes, UF’s six-point advantage evaporated as the team continued to miss free throws and foul jump shooters.
After forward Anthony Duruji missed a pair of free throws, Virginia Tech guard Nahiem Alleyne dashed down the floor and hit nothing but nylon to tie the game at 64. The Virginia Tech contingent had the hallowed arena roaring once more, and 13 sullen Gators huddled for an overtime pep talk.
But coach Mike White ensured that his team wouldn’t lose, and Castleton rose to the occasion with five points and three rebounds in overtime. His final conversion at the charity stripe gave the Gators a vital three-point lead at the Hinkle Fieldhouse, allowing UF to escape in overtime with a 75-70 victory Friday afternoon.
Florida started the game with fantastic energy that reverberated from its vocal bench to its stingy defense. The Gators drew two charges and poked away a steal inside the first two minutes.
Duruji muscled home a layup before a pretty pull-up from guard Tyree Appleby gave Florida a 4-2 lead.
But UF’s overzealous defense quickly turned from an asset to a handicap. The Gators swarmed star Hokie center Keve Aluma in the post, but the adept passer and Virginia Tech exploited Florida’s scrambled defense.
VT rattled off five straight three pointers, often as a result of Popovich-esque ball movement around the arc. Hunter Cattoor swished his third in a row to give the Hokies a 19-11 lead, and a layup from guard Tyrece Radford prompted a timeout from coach Mike White.
The Gators staff opted against doubling the post and implemented a full court press that helped UF get back in the game. Sophomore Scottie Lewis nailed a three, followed by Tre Mann’s up-and under move. Junior Noah Locke finished the Florida run with a jump to drag the Gators within one point.
Florida’s interior defenders guarded Aluma well after the defensive switch as he was limited to just seven points and six attempts.
“I think I was able to use my length to bother him at the rim,” Castleton said. “But we did a great job as a unit on him.”
Virginia Tech endured the Gator onslaught and put together a late 7-2 run to close out the first half. Mann failed to touch the ball on Florida’s final possession of the opening period, defining a quiet 7-point first half for the star sophomore.
Florida frustrated the Hokies into a technical foul after a 4-0 run out of the locker room. A Mann free throw brought the Gators within one, but they failed to get over the hump again.
Alleyne canned a triple to cap off a 9-2 Hokie run and the Gators once again flirted with the danger zone. All eyes turned to Mann, who began to demand the ball and attack his defenders more aggressively.
But Mann couldn’t reach the dominant peaks he climbed to in the SEC Tournament, and Florida’s supporting cast rediscovered their offensive touch. Along with Castleton, Lewis dropped 15 points. Sharpshooter Locke added 10 as well.
Florida finally took a lead late when Castleton knocked down a pair of free throws and the Gators extended their lead with a pair of clutch baskets. Lewis displayed confidence rarely seen since his high-school days as he crossed and rose over his defender to sink a long two.
Mann then worked his defender on the wing. He dribbled left, stepped back and drained a back-breaking three to put UF up six.
“We were great down the stretch in the second half,” White said. “Defended at a high level. Really outside of turning the ball over offensively, I thought we were really good.”
However, Florida’s reliable free-throw shooting faltered and offered Virginia Tech a lifeline. Duruji clanked three of four in the last minute before Alleyne sent the game to overtime.
Duruji and Alleyne traded tough finishes before Castleton finished through contact for an and-one conversion. Cattoor jammed home to bring the Hokies within one, but Mann finally buried VT with a dagger three.
Florida will return to action Sunday to face the winner of Oral Roberts and Ohio State. Time and location are to be determined.
Contact Declan Walsh at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @declanaw