Florida rallied to defeat Virginia Tech 75-70 in overtime Friday afternoon in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Gators, seeded 7th in the South Region, will advance to take on 15 seed Oral Roberts or 2 seed Ohio State on Sunday in second-round action.

It was a memorable game, a rollicking back and forth affair featuring two teams that played good basketball — the perfect way to kick off the first full day of March Madness in 2 years — and in the end, the victory marked Florida’s 8th consecutive first-round victory in the NCAA Tournament.

The Gators trailed by 10 points in the middle of the first half and 8 in the second half before storming back to take a 6-point lead late in the game. Florida appeared to have put away the Hokies, with Anthony Duruji headed to the line and the Gators up 3 with 7 seconds to play. But Duruji missed both free throws, giving Nahiem Alleyne the chance to tie with a 3 late and send the game to the extra session.

Here are 5 final thoughts on Florida’s thrilling 75-70 win.

Florida’s stars came to play

Florida’s slow start can be attributed to physical Virginia Tech defense and the smart decision by Mike Young to hound Tre Mann off the ball in an effort to deny him the basketball. Mann had only 2 points in the first 10 minutes, and Florida struggled to get All-SEC big man Colin Castleton the basketball.

But Castleton made a spectacular block with Florida trailing 19-11, and the play seemed to wake up the big man from Orlando. He was active from that point forward, and by the end of the game, had posted 19 points, a career-high 14 rebounds and 3 blocks. That type of performance puts him in elite NCAA Tournament company.

Meanwhile, the Hokies did an admirable job on Mann, but the Florida guard did score 14 points, taking what the defense gave him, and then, when his team needed him the most, made this absurd play in overtime.

Florida’s defensive scout – and execution-  was effective against Mike Young’s excellent offensive sets

Florida got lost on some late shot clock rotations in the first half, allowing Hokies guard Hunter Cattoor to get loose and snipe 3 first-half 3-pointers to help stake Tech to a 10-point lead.

Florida also was hurt by its decision to press early — which led to 7 Hokies points on 3 early possessions.

However, in a game dubbed by some analysts as a “coaching mismatch” because of Young’s innovative and effective offensive sets and Florida’s tendency to go on big scoring droughts, it was the Hokies who couldn’t solve Florida’s defense. Mike White’s half court man defense — which used on-ball pressure and a token press to inhibit Virginia Tech’s ability to get into its sets and then focused on shutting down straight line drives from the outstanding Hokies drivers Justyn Mutts and Tyrece Radford — was marvelous, especially in the second half. The Hokies run some of the most imaginative sets in America, but Florida forced scoring droughts of 4 minutes and 6:20 in overcoming an 8-point deficit to win. The Hokies’ two buckets in between those spans? Low percentage, well-guarded jumpers by Radford. In other words, even when the Hokies scored, they were taking shots Florida wanted them to take.

But … Mike White made poor coaching decisions down the stretch that nearly cost Florida the game

Florida led by 3 with the leather with 48 seconds to play in regulation when, following a Virginia Tech timeout, the Gators picked up a 5-second violation. The turnover led to an Alleyne jumper that cut the Gators’ lead to 1 and put pressure back on Florida to make free throws and close.

Noah Locke was the inbound man on the play — and the 3-year starter certainly needs to be aware enough to call a timeout before the 5-second violation is called. But White is capable of stopping that play, too, and it’s incredible that with a 3-point lead he did not call a timeout.

White compounded the error with 7 seconds to play, after Duruji missed two free throws with a chance to ice the game. Rather than foul up 3 points, the Gators allowed Virginia Tech to run offense. Keve Aluma fed the ball quickly to Alleyne and the sharpshooting Hokies guard buried a game-tying 3.

White was curiously not asked about this decision in the postgame press conference — but if he could have it back, I bet he fouls up 3.

This Florida team has so much character and heart

It can’t be overstated what a good story this Florida team is.

The Gators lost a preseason All-American and the SEC preseason Player of the Year in the most traumatic way imaginable in December when Keyontae Johnson nearly died on the floor at FSU.

The Gators didn’t touch a basketball for 2 weeks, then fought through multiple COVID pauses to qualify for the NCAA Tournament anyway — and easily. Florida was never on the bubble after a signature win at a great West Virginia team in January.

Many other teams this season wilted in the face of a demanding, COVID-compressed schedule. Duke failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament and Coach K constantly blamed the demands of COVID. Kentucky, the SEC’s gold standard program, missed out on early fall practices and their usual “work out the kinks” nonconference slate and went 9-16. Michigan State was eliminated Thursday night in a play-in game.

But Florida plays on.

Even Friday, the Gators lost Tyree Appleby, their best ball handler and the team’s second best creator, for a huge portion of the basketball game after an unfortunate and accidental Aluma elbow caused a laceration to Appleby’s face that forced stitches. The Gators powered through it anyway.

“This team has tremendous character. No one has been through what they have been through,” White said after the game. “It was a great win. Virginia Tech is a terrific team. Whether it was a NCAA Tournament game, a nonconference game, a neutral court MTE, it would have been a great win to beat those guys. We were great in the second half. We defended at a high level. I think other than turning the ball over, we were really good. I am so proud of how they overcame adversity, as they continue to do.”

Florida matches up well with Ohio State and Oral Roberts

The Buckeyes are the 2 seed in the South and while they are magnificent on offense, they lack a dominant big with size (EJ Liddell is very good but at 6-7, will give up length and height to both Castleton and Omar Payne, who is expected to return from his suspension), which favors Florida. The Buckeyes also aren’t spectacular defensively — which makes them prone to blowing leads when (really, if) their offense goes stagnant for spells. They also really miss glue guy Kyle Young, who has missed 3 games down the stretch. Ohio State had lost 5 of 8 entering the NCAA Tournament, and are the most vulnerable 2 seed. On cue, they trailed Oral Roberts at halftime. (The game was still in progress as this was published.)

Meanwhile, Oral Roberts has a future NBA dude in wiry scorer Max Abmas, and forward Kevin Obanor is a load. But the Golden Eagles lack the high-end talent of the Gators and were lit up by 27 points in their one battle with SEC competition this season (a 91-64 loss to Missouri).

In other words, White’s tough Florida team has a viable path to the Sweet 16.