INDIANAPOLIS - The version of Colin Castleton that throughout the first half of the Southeastern Conference season provided Florida with an inside, both-ends presence the likes of which the Gators had not seen in years was awfully encouraging. The version that took the floor for most of the season's second half was oftentimes frustrating, especially with his work on the glass. Frustrating For his coaches, for the fans and apparently for Castleton himself.
Fed up with not playing to his standard, Castleton decided Friday to do something about it. His timing was excellent.
"Coaches talk about it and I know what I've got to bring every day and, if I don't, then it doesn't look good on myself and the team," Castleton said. "I realized that I had to do better on the rebounding part and that just comes with aggressiveness, playing [with] a high motor and just wanting it more than the other team."
In this case, more than Virginia Tech, which just happened to be in the way.
Castleton forced his post-up will on the the opposition Friday on his way 19 points, a career-high 14 rebounds and three blocked shots over an exhausting 43 minutes in leading the No. 7-seed Gators past the 10th-seeded Hokies 75-70 in overtime in the first round of the NCAA South Region at Hinkle Field House. Castleton, the 6-foot-11 Michigan transfer, had five points and three rebounds in the extra period, but the big play of the day - and overtime - came from sophomore guard Tre Mann, who rained in a clutch 3-pointer with the shot clock running down and just 23 seconds remaining to push UF in front by four.
The Gators (15-9), one of just eights teams in the country with at least one win in each of the last four NCAA tournaments, advanced to Sunday's Round of 32 where they'll face 15th-seed Oral Roberts (17-10), which in shocking No. 2-seed Ohio State 75-72 in OT (and winning that school's first NCAA game) became the instant Cinderella darling of the tournament. The UF-ORU winner gets another week in the Hoosier State bubble and date in the "Sweet 16."
Mann, the first-team All-SEC honoree, finished with 14 points, hit three of six from deep, and also had three rebounds and four assists over a team-high 44 minutes. Backup guard Scottie Lewis had his finest game in weeks (kind of like Castleton) with 15 points and four rebounds off the bench, as UF had to piece together rotations without the services of injured guard Tyree Appleby in the second half and forward Omar Payne for the entire game, as penance for his Flagrant-2 foul and ejection from last week's loss to Tennessee in the SEC Tournament.
"Made it a little more interesting than we needed to, [but] showed tremendous resilience to bounce back and find a way to win in overtime," UF coach Mike White said after his team shot 56.5 percent for the game, despite just five makes from distance and a below-average showing from the free-throw line (18 of 27). "This team continues to show character. No one has been through what they've been through. Really proud of our guys."
UF trailed by 10 in the first half, by eight five minutes into the second and by six with 13 minutes left when Appleby, the co-point guard alongside Mann and on a run of eight straight games scoring in double figures, took an unintentional elbow from a Hokie that split a nasty gash in the fourth-year junior's forehead. Appleby was taken to the locker room and did not return. Payne, meanwhile, was available to play but remained parked on the sideline for the duration for what White referred to as a "teaching moment."
Meanwhile, Tech coach Mike Young was loving everything about proceedings into the period.
"I thought we were in great shape," Young said. "I thought we'd guarded really well. The pace was what we were looking for. Everything was in place."
UF, though, made its adjustments. Minus Appleby, Mann had to take on more minutes, more ball-handling duties and use more ball screens. Minus Payne, Castleton was going to be on the floor a lot more than usual. Not ideal for a guy who had struggled some with his conditioning following a COVID pause last month, but battled through fatigue and played every minute after intermission. No matter.
Basically, guys had to step up.
"We weren't losing the game. That's just what it comes down to," said Castleton, who hit six of his eight field-goal attempts and seven of eight free throws. "You got to have the mindset of, 'we're not losing this game; we don't want to go back to Florida just yet." You just got to just keep pushing, keep fighting."
UF trailed by six, 46-40, with just over 10 minutes to go when Castleton led his teammates on a 16-6 run, enabling the Gators to take a four-point lead, 56-52, inside four minutes remaining.
"We stepped up defensively and got some stops," said White, whose team limited Tech (15-7) to just 42.1 percent for the game, 35.3 percent in the second half and forced misses on 12 of the Hokies' final 14 attempts from 3. "When you're getting stops, sometimes it flows into positive things offensively."
The Florida lead was six when guard Noah Locke fouled Tech's Naheim Alleyne on a 3-point attempt. Alleyne made all three, cutting the lead in half, as well as giving him 10 of what would be a string of 14 consecutive points for the Hokies.
And he wasn't done.
The UF advantage was still three after two Lewis free throws with 29.3 seconds. At the Virginia Tech end, Alleyne missed a 3 that would have tied the game, with Gators forward Anthony Duruji (9 points, 5 rebounds) grabbing the rebound and getting fouled with 7.3 seconds to go.
Duruji needed to hit one of his two free throws to make it a two-possession game. He missed both.
Alleyne, on his way to a career-high 28 points, nailed a harried 3-pointer with 1.7 seconds left to send the game into overtime, with the Hokies oozing momentum.
The two teams traded baskets to start the period, but then Castleton converted an "and-one" 3-point play to give the Gators the lead. Two free throws at Tech's end by Tyrece Radford (18 points, 4 rebounds) were canceled out by two more from Castleton with 1:38 remaining for, again, that 3-point cushion.
The UF defense forced a miss, but Castleton was swarmed and turned the ball over - the Gators' 18th - on Florida's possession which led to run-out layup by Hunter Cattoor (11 points) and a one-point game with 48 seconds to go.
With the shot-clock ticking down, Mann took a pass from Locke at the top of the key, worked his defender to right side of the arc, and bounced into a step-back, closely guarded 3-pointer - with a high degree of difficulty - that splashed dead on and put the Gators up four with 22.9 seconds to go.
Tech misfired, Lewis made one of two free throws and UF, as they say this time of year, survived and advanced.
"If Colin doesn't step up like he does, we're going home," White said.
Turns out, they're sticking around a couple more days. With a chance to stay even longer.