The Gators had an off night against Ohio State in the championship game of the Fort Myers Tip-Off on Wednesday.
They only shot 37 percent from the field, including just 4-for-14 (29 percent) from beyond the arc. They missed a bunch of wide-open shots, including some layups. They missed 10 free throws. They committed a couple of sloppy turnovers. Ohio State’s size and physicality disrupted their ball movement for most of the game. Their best shooter, Myreon Jones, went just 2-for-7 and turned it over four times.
On the other end, they allowed the Buckeyes to shoot 53 percent, by far their worst defensive showing of the season. Star big man E.J. Liddell went off for 23 points, five rebounds and five blocked shots.
The Gators trailed for more than 33 minutes and only led for a little more than three minutes, most of it coming in the first half.
And yet, somehow, someway, they found a way to have more points on the scoreboard than the Buckeyes when the clock hit zero – actually, right as the clock hit zero.
Thanks to Tyree Appleby’s buzzer-beating three from about 30 feet out, No. 23 Florida defeated Ohio State, 71-68.
“It felt good just seeing one go in,” Appleby said. “My teammates, they kept preaching to me during the game, like, ‘The next shot’s going to go in.’ They always kept me confident throughout the whole game.”
The shot certainly reminded Gators fans of a certain shot in the NCAA Tournament by Chris Chiozza, and it elicited a celebration almost as wild. Appleby’s teammates chased him to the other side of the court. Jones got bumped from behind by Anthony Duruji, which sent Appleby flying into a table.
“It felt like a movie,” Appleby said. “Once I hit the shot, I looked up, and my teammates were right there with me. So, it was probably one of the best moments of my college career and really in my life. It was just – wow. I would say that. Wow.”
Appleby had been just 1-for-9 from the floor before that final shot, but coach Mike White said that Appleby’s mental toughness allowed him to shoot with confidence.
“He’s a gutsy guy,” White said. “He’s ultra-competitive and tough. He’s got a high level of confidence. He’s the type of guy that makes that type of shot. He had some finishes at the rim that kind of hung up there on the rim – three or four if I’m not mistaken – that almost went down for him, but he kept coming.”
— Florida Gators Men’s Basketball (@GatorsMBK) November 25, 2021
After a defensive slobber knocker in the first half, the second half featured one momentum swing after another. Ohio State would build a 10-point lead, only to have the Gators cut it down to two. Then they’d build it back up to eight points again in a matter of seconds.
The Gators (5-0) played with tremendous effort, resiliency and toughness, but it just looked like it wasn’t meant to be for a while.
With 13 minutes to go, they trailed by 10. White’s last couple of teams might’ve lost confidence and let this turn into a 20-point loss. Instead, this group never stopped believing in each other, and they went blow for blow with a team that is annually considered among the toughest in the country.
“We knew this game was going to be tough,” Appleby said. “Going down by 10 late in the second half, we knew that we just had to come together defensively and offensively, but mostly defensively because that’s what we pride ourselves on – the defensive end. So, I think we picked it up on our defensive end. And then, in every huddle, we knew. Our coaches and even our players on the bench, they kept saying, like, ‘We’re going to win this game.’ So, we always had that confidence in us.”
Eventually, they tied the game at 65 with a couple of Appleby free throws with 2:57 to go. That’s when the game turned into an edge-of-your seat, heart-pounding, palms-sweating thriller.
Colin Castleton pulled down a missed three-point shot by Meechie Johnson and was fouled at the other end. He missed the first free throw but made the second to push the Gators in front by one.
Twenty seconds later, Duruji fouled Liddell while shooting, and he made both free throws to give OSU the 67-66 lead with 1:56 left.
The Gators came up empty on their next possession. Justin Ahrens missed a three-point shot for the Buckeyes (4-2), but point guard Jamari Wheeler came away with the offensive rebound.
Forward Zed Key drove down the lane and barreled over Florida guard Phlandrous Fleming. The officials called it a blocking foul because they thought Fleming’s right heel was touching the restricted arc. They reviewed it, and the replay seemed to show that both of Fleming’s feet were outside of the restricted area, but they upheld the blocking foul call anyway.
Key made one of two free throws to extend the lead to two points with 47 seconds remaining.
Florida answered back with a brilliant play call by White. Castleton set a screen for Duruji near the free-throw line, and Duruji sprinted for the basket from the left side. Appleby lobbed him an alley-oop pass from the right wing. Duruji leapt high into the air and slammed it down with authority to tie the game at 68 with 36 seconds to go.
“That’s one of our Coach’s secret plays,” Appleby said. “He called that play like a possession before. He knew it was going to work, and it worked to perfection.”
Ohio State opted to run the shot clock all the way down to hold for what they hoped would be the final shot of regulation. Liddell’s jumper caromed off of the rim, and Castleton swatted it near the Buckeyes bench. Jones chased it down and passed it to Appleby in the frontcourt with three seconds on the clock.
Appleby took one dribble, did a little hop step and let it fly from near the midcourt logo.
“Just trying to get up a shot as quickly as possible,” he said. “I knew we had four seconds left; I looked up at the clock when [Jones] had the ball. I was just trying to get a clean look before the buzzer went off.”
He did, and the ball splashed through the net just as the clock hit zero to set off the early Thanksgiving celebration.
“It was beautiful,” Fleming said. “We are continuing to build, continuing to learn each another and continuing to love on each other. These guys in the locker room are amazing. All the coaching staff is amazing. The medical staff is amazing. We’re all just a unit on and off the court, so it was just a great thing to battle Ohio State. Great basketball team, and to beat them in the championship, it was so much fun. We’re having so much fun now, and I’m just excited for the next step.
“We kept telling everybody, we were like, ‘Believe. Believe. Believe. We’re going to win this game. We’re going to win this game.’ And that’s what a team does. We had a lot of hope. [Appleby] just is a big-time player making big-time plays, and he came in clutch today.”
Aside from Appleby, Castleton and Fleming were the stars of the game for Florida. Castleton recorded 11 points, 13 rebounds and three assists for his third double-double of the season. Fleming used a 9-for-10 showing from the free-throw line to post a season-high 19 points, along with two rebounds and four steals. Forward CJ Felder also had a nice game, with 10 points, five rebounds and three steals.
Appleby and Fleming were named to the Fort Myers Tip-Off All-Tournament Team, while Castleton was named the event’s Most Valuable Player.
The Gators made a bunch of mistakes on Wednesday. They’re probably not going to win many games where their opponent is plus-16 in shooting percentage.
But everything isn’t always going to go according to plan in a long season. There are going to be days like this where everything seems to be going against them. One of the biggest keys to being a championship-caliber team come March is having the maturity and mental toughness to find a way to win anyway.
Great teams win games that they’re not supposed to, and the Gators did that against Ohio State.
“Our guys showed a lot of grit,” White said. “We have some gritty guys. A tough-nosed group that just found a way. It wasn’t real pretty in a lot of areas for about 30 minutes. I thought the last 10, we executed at a better rate. The resilience, though, defensively, forcing the 18 turnovers, gave us a chance. Proud of our group. It’s something to build on. You beat one of the better programs in the country, and you’ve got a lot of stuff that you can improve on. Really proud of Tyree and the way he finished it, of course. But, really, throughout the game, we had a lot of adversity throughout that game and found a way.
“This group’s really, really worked hard. They’ve had a great attitude. They deserve moments like this, and, hopefully, we can have a few more of these.”