Short-handed Florida outlasts Virginia Tech in NCAA opener

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Florida forward Colin Castleton (12) blocks the shot of Virginia Tech guard Tyrece Radford (23) in the second half of a first round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Friday, March 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

INDIANAPOLIS – Florida overcame playing short-handed most of the season after preseason SEC player of the year Keyontae Johnson was lost because of a scary medical episode.

The Gators did it again, getting through to the second round for an eighth straight NCAA Tournament appearance — and doing it without two key contributors.

"This team just continues to show character,” Florida coach Mike White said. “No one’s been through what they’ve been through.”

Colin Castleton scored 19 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, Tre Mann hit a step-back 3-pointer with 23 seconds left in overtime and the seventh-seeded Gators held off No. 10 seed Virginia Tech 75-70 in a first-round game on Friday.

Florida was cheered on by Johnson, who has turned into a de facto assistant coach since returning to the team following a December game in which he collapsed on the court and was hospitalized. He is still recovering from the episode, and doctors told him he could not play again this season.

The Gators had plenty of time to learn how to play without Johnson. But they opened the NCAAs without key forward Omar Payne, who was benched by White, and lost starting guard Tyree Appleby midway through the second half after an inadvertent elbow opened a gash on his forehead.

Enter Castleton, who was dominant on the inside. And Mann came through with a pair of key 3-pointers late to send the Gators (15-9) into the second round to face Oral Roberts after it stunned No. 2 seed Ohio State.

“It just shows who we are as a team, our character,” said Castleton, a transfer from Michigan. “We went through a lot of other stuff off the court, and this game today we went through a lot on the court.”