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Saturday, December 04, 2021

Gators implode on the doorstep of Sweet 16

Florida allowed a 10-point lead to dissipate against 15th-seeded Oral Roberts

<p>Tyree Appleby paces the ball up the floor against Missouri March 4. Appleby logged a team-high 37 minutes and 14 points Sunday</p>

Tyree Appleby paces the ball up the floor against Missouri March 4. Appleby logged a team-high 37 minutes and 14 points Sunday

INDIANAPOLIS — Coach Mike White sat on his podium, red-faced and teary-eyed, and endured a media barrage Sunday night. 

In the background, the boisterous Oral Roberts contingent at Indiana Farmers Coliseum faintly sang the Cupid Shuffle in celebration. 

Florida basketball’s devastation seemed almost impossible just 10 minutes earlier. Junior Noah Locke knifed through the lane to put UF up 11. But the Gator lead trickled away in final minutes due to season-defining mistakes as ORU emerged victorious 81-78 in the second-round matchup.

White impugned his team’s ball security and foul-happy defense all season long, and these critiques defined Florida’s collapse. Oral Roberts converted seven times at the foul line and poked away five steals in the final 10 minutes. 

“It's been our biggest issue all year,” White said about Florida’s turnovers. “I'm not sure that there's anything else that we could have tried in terms of motivation or film.”

UF also ground to a halt on offense and failed to get sophomore Tre Mann a bucket in the final 17 minutes of the game. White opted for a more stagnant approach that sought to drain the clock and create opportunities in isolation. 

“I thought that part of slowing it down would help us settle in with some of the erratic decisions that we were making offensively,” White said.

Meanwhile, Oral Roberts found success with a very simple game plan: don’t turn the ball over, space the floor and rely on guard Max Abmas and center Kevin Obanor.  

Their approach shined from the opening tip. The duo scored all of ORU’s first 10 points and connected twice from three. 

Florida imposed its superior size to create high percentage looks in the first half. The Gators knocked down 58% of their shots inside the arc, and interior scorers Anthony Duruji and Colin Castleton finished 6-8 from the field. 

UF swelled their lead to six twice in the first half, but each time the Eagles answered with a timely three. Abmas rose up and drained another triple to give Oral Roberts a two-point lead 18 minutes in. However, Mann led a swift 10-3 to close the half as he found open shooters for back-to-back threes before scooping a layup attempt off the backboard. 

Mann’s dominance continued out of the locker room. The Gainesville native drained clutch threes from the parking lot to give the Gators a game-high, nine-point lead. 

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He swished a jumper minutes later from the top of the key to restore a nine-point advantage and improved to 19 points in the afternoon. But Mann, Florida’s catalyst and leader on offense, failed to score for the remainder of the game. 

“I just missed shots,” Mann said about his late-game goose egg. “Ran the same plays. I got the same shots in the first half. I made some open looks. I just missed shots.”

ORU’s first surge came with 13 minutes left as a pair of Abmas free throws capped off a 6-0 run and scraped the Eagles within five. Florida provided an immediate counterpunch as a Locke three and a slam from center Omar Payne restored UF’s advantage to double-digits. 

Obanor ignited the Eagles’ fateful charge with a tough shot through contact for a four-point play. The Oral Roberts defense then stifled Florida into a shot clock violation before guard Carlos Jürgens stroked a jumper from deep to trim the deficit to four. 

Castleton responded with a pair of free throws, but Obanor’s gritty, and-one finish drew his team within just one possession. Oral Roberts lurked a point behind UF before coach Paul Mills’ master stroke. 

His staff elected to foul junior Osayi Osifo, a community college transfer who shot just 47% from the foul line. The South African national missed the front end, and Obanor converted down the floor to give Oral Roberts a late one-point lead. 

The game see-sawed as Locke drained a jumper. However, Eagles wing Deshang Weaver’s only make of the night came with a minute to go from the right corner to give ORU a definitive 80-78 lead. 

Obanor added another free-throw, and Mann missed a Hail Mary attempt for overtime to round out the contest. 

Sunday’s loss marks White’s third straight second round exit and ends Florida’s season. 

Contact Declan Walsh at dwalsh@alligator.org and follow him on Twitter @declanaw

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