For the first 39 minutes and 55 seconds of Florida’s matchup against Ohio State Wednesday, Tyree Appleby epitomized Florida’s frustrating offensive performance.
Appleby struggled from every level in Fort Myers, suffering a number of agonizing rim-outs and failing to connect from long range. In all, the 6-foot-3 point guard was shooting just 1-9 on a Gators team that shot just 36 percent from the floor.
But coach Mike White has maintained that Florida’s hard-nosed defense can keep them in any game, and Appleby, one of the few players to stick with White from last season, led UF’s great perimeter defense Wednesday. The Gators suffocated the Ohio State backcourt with 18 forced turnovers and 22 points off of the OSU giveaways, and despite a woeful shooting performance the Gators had clawed themselves even with five seconds remaining.
The Cleveland State transfer received the ball at half-court, dribbled into the Ohio State defense and erased an evening of futility with a 35-foot buzzer-beater to give the Gators a 71-68 victory over Ohio State and take home the Fort Myers Tip-Off Championship.
Ohio State dominated the interior from the opening tip, as Indiana transfer Joey Brunk scored a pair of layups and All-American E.J Liddell found leather on a short jumper to give OSU a 6-2 lead. An Appleby jumper answered another Liddell layup, but sharpshooter Justin Ahrens nailed a three to give the Buckeyes their largest lead of the half at 11-4.
In all, Ohio State’s front-court trio of Liddell, Kyle Young and Zed Key feasted against Florida’s undersized and shallow front court, outscoring Florida 34-26 in the paint and shooting better than 74% percent as a team from two-point range.
Florida leaned on the charity stripe to fight their way back into the game, as two trips to the line from Colin Castleton and Phlandrous Fleming helped narrow the deficit to one. Florida’s focus on attacking the interior and crashing the offensive glass paid dividends at the free throw line Wednesday, as the Gators shot 71% on 33 attempts from the line.
Castleton gave the Gators their first lead of the half with a hookshot at the five-minute mark, but a late 8-2 run sparked by the interior dominance of Liddell gave the Buckeyes a 30-24 lead entering the locker room.
Liddell, who had dominated the Gators with 13 points in the first half, differed to his fellow front court stars Young and Key out of the locker room. Liddell found a cutting Young for an alley-oop slam for OSU’s first points of the second half, and a fall-away jumper from the fifth-year senior put the Buckeyes back up three.
Key would lead the Buckeyes to their largest lead of the game, as the much-improved Long Islander made a short-jumper and a fast-break dunk to put Ohio State up ten and force a Mike White timeout.
Florida’s effort, which White described as unwavering after the game, willed the Gators back into the game through hustle plays. Myreon Jones poked the ball away from Meechie Johnson and found C.J. Felder for the and-one finish, and Fleming glided to the rim after another UF steal. The Charleston Southern transfer then crashed the glass for a weak side rebound, and the ensuing foul led to four free throws after a technical from the Ohio State bench.
Young grew the Ohio State lead back to six, but he would soon foul out of the game with 11 points at the nine-minute mark.
The two teams battled back-and-forth down to the four minute mark, as a contested Myreon Jones three brought the Gators within four. But after knocking down a pair of free throws, Felder found acres of space after an Appleby steal and converted a layup to tie the game at 63.
A nifty Liddell post move was answered by two Appleby free throws, but Liddel made his way back to the line to give the Buckeyes a late one-point lead. OSU had an opportunity to further extend the lead after a controversial blocking call, but Key split a pair at the line. Castleton threw a lob to a marooned Anthony Duruji, who nearly touched the roof of Suncoast Credit Union arena to throw down an acrobatic alley-oop and tie the game at 68.
OSU went to their All-American for the final Buckeye possession, but Liddell came up short on a close-range hook shot, and Appleby’s heroic elevated UF to a fifth-straight victory.
Stay tuned to Gators Territory.