Gators aim to end run of NCAA Tournament Cinderella Oral Roberts

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Edgar Thompson, Orlando Sentinel
·5 min read
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Dust off the glass slipper; make it extra large, please.

Oral Roberts is in line for a fitting as the 2021 NCAA Tournament’s emerging Cinderella.

The Florida Gators aim to end the fairytale when the teams meet at 7:45 p.m. Sunday during the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Oral Roberts’ stunning overtime decision over Ohio State was a rare upset. No. 15 seeds have a 9-141 record in the NCAA tournament entering Saturday. winners just nine times in 141 tries entering Saturday. The Golden Eagles certainly grabbed the attention of No. 7 Florida following the Gators’ equally scintillating come-from-behind overtime win against No. 10 Virginia Tech in the South Region.

“We saw that those guys can play,” UF shooting guard Noah Locke said. “It’s not a game where we can just come in and underestimate them. All those guys can score.”

Locke had never heard of Oral Roberts, a private evangelical university in Tulsa, Okla., until the high-flying Golden Eagles put on a shooting clinic and showcased plenty of grit to pull off the biggest Day 1 upset of the Big Dance.

Locke, though, understands the danger of a confident, blossoming squad embracing the role of NCAA Tournament darlings.

“I feel like usually teams in the tournament, you know when it’s a Cinderella team and they win their first game, the next team comes up they’re like, ‘Aw well, we got a 15-seed, an inferior opponent,’” Locke said. “They come in thinking that way and then they beat them, and then they just keep going and going.”

The ability to close out on the 3-point line and close down driving lanes to the basket will be key for the Gators (15-9), especially against sophomore guard Max Abmas, a 6-foot-1, 165-pound dynamo who leads the nation with a scoring average of 24.4. points.

Behind Abmas, Oral Roberts (18-10) leads the nation with an average of just over 11 3-pionters, the total it drained to upset Ohio State.

Abmas and forward Kevin Obanor hit five 3s each. The 6-foot-8 Obanor averages 18.6 points, 9.5 rebounds and shoots 46.4% from 3-point range.

“One of the most difficult match-ups for us defensively all year,” UF coach Mike White said. “A team that’s on a great run. Their top six can all pass, dribble and shoot. Really, really good shooters led by Abmas and Obanor. Obanor shoots it as well as any post player that we have played since I’ve been at Florida. They just space you and spread you, which opens up driving lanes for arguably the fastest guy in our game (Abmas).

“We have our hands full trying to defend these guys.”

The Golden Eagles have won six straight games, including three in three days to win the Summit League Tournament, earn a spot in the Big Dance and set the stage for the school’s first NCAA Tournament win since 1974.

Old-timers in Tulsa still recall the ’74 squad slipping past Syracuse 86-82 in overtime and outgunning Louisville 96-93 before falling in overtime to Kansas 93-90 with the Final Four bid on the line.

The Gators now look to avoid becoming a footnote in another magical run by Oral Roberts.

“We have to have our guys’ attention,” White said. “It’s easy for an Ohio State or a Virginia or a blue blood to get your guys’ attention. These guys beat Ohio State, and Ohio State’s absolutely terrific. If everyone wants to call them a Cinderella, it really doesn’t matter.

“Our guys’ mindset and approach is the most important thing.”

The Gators stumbled into the Big Dance with losses in three of four games and little else going for them beyond the stellar play of sophomore guard Tre Mann.

Mann did his part against Virginia Tech, effectively icing the game with a step-back 3-pointer with 23 remaining in overtime.

“It’s definitely great to be able to have someone to depend on to make those shots,” Locke said.

Mann had plenty of help as the Gators came from behind to beat the Hokies.

Big man Colin Castleton pitched in with a virtuoso performance, totaling 19 points, 14 rebounds and three blocked shots. Slumping sophomore wing Scottie Lewis summoned his best performance in nearly a month, finishing with 15 points, four rebounds and numerous disruptive plays on defense.

The Gators, though, were far from flawless closing out Friday’s win.

A five-second call on Locke when he failed to inbound the basketball gave new life and momentum to Virginia Tech. With UF still ahead three points and looking to seal the win, forward Anthony Duruji missed two free throws.

The Gators then allowed red-hot Hokies guard Nahiem Alleyne to drive down the court and hit the game-tying 3-pointer with two seconds left in regulation rather than foul him.

“Moving forward, yes, something that we’ll definitely consider,” White said Saturday.

The Gators hope Sunday’s game does not come down to last-second decisions made under duress. Despite his team being 7.5-point favorites and from the mighty SEC, Locke knows March Madness and Cinderella are a dangerous mix.

“Obviously they’re a really good team,” he said. “We’ve got to come in with the right mindset, ready to win.”

This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Edgar Thompson at egthompson@orlandosentinel.com.