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They already had won even before tipoff of Friday’s NCAA Tournament opener.
After all the misery and misfortune they’ve weathered and withstood this season, just being in the bracket was a monumental victory for the Florida Gators.
The fact that they actually gritted, gutted and grinded out a 75-70 overtime victory over the Virginia Tech Hokies on Friday makes it an even better story for UF’s unfairly criticized coach Mike White and his team-full of defiers and never-say-diers.
“This team just continues to show character,” White said afterward. “No team has been through what they’ve been through. I’m so proud of our guys.”
And if you’re a Gator fan today, you should also be proud of your head coach. On Friday, White did something unheard of in today’s win-at-all-costs world of college athletics. He actually used the opening game of the NCAA Tournament to show he is a mentor and not just a coach. You’re not going to believe this, but White used the game to instill discipline and send a message by benching one of his key contributors because of a dirty play in the SEC Tournament.
Even though he didn’t have to, White held out 6-foot-10 Omar Payne from Friday’s first-round game after Payne was ejected from the quarterfinals of the conference tourney last week for a flagrant-2 foul against Tennessee’s John Fulkerson. The ejection came after Fulkerson suffered a concussion and facial fracture when Payne’s flagrant elbow knocked the UT player senseless.
The SEC did not suspend Payne, which means he could have played against the Hokies Friday and certainly would have helped UF’s cause considering the issues the Gators had with Virginia Tech’s size. White, though, did what few coaches would do in the NCAA Tournament. He risked winning a game for the sake of teaching a lesson.
Could you imagine Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Bill Self, Will Wade, Sean Miller or some of college basketball’s other cheats and heels doing the same thing?
“It was definitely a teaching moment,” White said afterward. “It was difficult that he couldn’t play, but it was the right thing to do. That’s it. Omar handled it like a champ. He was very remorseful. We all make mistakes. He could have helped us in a lot of ways today, but we were fortunately able to overcome without him.”
Should we really be surprised?
This team has been overcoming obstacles and navigating adversity for months now.
They endured the sad, surreal sight of their star player — preseason SEC Player of the Year favorite Keyontae Johnson — crumpling to the floor coming out of a timeout against Florida State on Dec. 12. The unconscious Johnson was lifted onto a stretcher and carried to a waiting ambulance as teammates and coaches watched in shock and horror, wondering if their teammate would even survive. The Gators canceled their next four games following Johnson’s collapse and took 15 days off.
Thankfully, Johnson recovered and, although he has not been cleared to play, he was on the bench Friday as he has been for much of the season as a de facto assistant coach. Still — after seeing what happened to their beloved teammate during this pandemic-plagued season — it would have been very easy for Florida’s players to opt-out, give up and check out.
Instead, the Gators bore down and fought their way to a No. 7 seed when more talented teams, such as Duke and Kentucky, folded and couldn’t even make the field. And then on Friday, UF conquered even more misfortune when starting point guard Tyree Appleby was lost midway through the second half after an inadvertent elbow opened a bloody gash on his forehead. They also endured foul trouble, missed free throws and a 10-point deficit in the first half.
As somebody wise once said, the only thing that overcomes hard luck is hard work, and that’s exactly what the Gators displayed on Friday. Especially Colin Castleton, the diligent DeLand kid who transferred from Michigan before the season and scored 19 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked three shots.
“We weren’t losing the game,” Castleton said defiantly afterward. “I mean, that’s just what it comes down to. You’ve got to have a mindset of ‘We’re not losing this game!’ … It just shows who we are as a team and our character. We have gone through a lot of other stuff off the court, and this game today we went through a lot on the court. Fighting through adversity; that’s been the motto that Coach White has been preaching to us all season.”
Hopefully now the vocal minority of idiotic UF fans on social media will get off White’s back. How ironic is it that when White was hired, there were many other coaches whom the armchair ADs in Gator Nation were lobbying for — such as then-Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, who was fired earlier this season for physically abusing his players and staff.
There were also those who wanted former UF athletics director Jeremy Foley to hire ex-Murray State coach Steve Prohm, who instead ended up at Iowa State and was just fired for going 2-22 and 0-18 in the Big 12.
The most popular candidate, though, was Archie Miller, who was then at Dayton and ended up being hired by Indiana. Four years and no NCAA Tournament appearances later at a storied basketball program like IU, Miller was just fired by the Hoosiers.
Meanwhile, all Mike White does is make the tournament most every season. If you’re scoring at home, the Gators are one of only 11 programs in the country to make the last four NCAA Tournaments and White is 4-0 in NCAA Tournament openers.
Hey, Gator fans, it’s time to celebrate Mike White — a coach who doesn’t just win games.
He teaches lessons.
This column first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email me at email@example.com. Hit me up on Twitter @BianchiWrites and listen to my Open Mike radio show every weekday from 6 to 9:30 a.m. on FM 96.9, AM 740 and HD 101.1-2