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In West Virginia, win the final step in Gators’ quest to overcome the loss of Keyontae Johnson

After Keyontae Johnson collapsed face first and was subsequently admitted to the hospital in critical condition for several daysBasketball became an afterthought for FloridaMen’s basketball team. Johnson was the leader of the Gators, an All-SEC first-team selection last season that was named SEC Preseason Player of the Year ahead of this season.

If Florida had fought on the court for the rest of the season, that would have been understandable. And the Gators did it first. They beat Vanderbilt and LSU, but were then blown out by Alabama, a mediocre team from Kentucky, and lost in four games in the state of Mississippi.

However, their season has completely turned since their loss to the state of Mississippi. Mike White’s team won their fourth game in a row on Saturday, heading to West Virginia and beat the number 11 climbers 85-80.

Suddenly Florida knocks on the door of the Top 25 and can assert itself as the second best team in the league behind Alabama.

“We’re very, very excited about it,” White said in his post-game press conference. “It’s good to know that hopefully your boys will gain a bit of confidence. We did it at home, now we’ve done it on the street. Hopefully this level of confidence will help our boys even take the job.” more. After Keyontae, this team can still be a very good team. “

It’s the last feeling that was discussed in the last few weeks. After all, Florida was an inconsistent team last season – even with Johnson, Kerry Blackshear Jr. (who graduated), and Andrew Nembhard (who moved to Gonzaga). The blowout losses against Alabama and Kentucky, the latter in Gainesville, raised questions. After the defeat in the state of Mississippi, the Gators sat 6-4 and 3-3 in the league, followed by a game against the glowing Tennessee. And it got worse: Scottie Lewis had missed the previous two games due to COVID-19 logs and was out again while Michigan was transferring Colin Castleton I would miss the Volunteers game with an ankle injury.

Florida then went out and drubbing the volunteers at 26. And the Gators have been a completely different team since that win.

“People forget that these people – we came back from Tallahassee and we were done. Completely done,” White said. “Guys went home and didn’t do anything. Some of them did, I’m sure some of these guys went to the gym. But we didn’t team up for 15 days. And it wasn’t a break where we are still doing 5-on-0, Dry 0, watching movies with guys … some guys went home for 14, 15 days.

“We had to mentally heal from the trauma these guys were going through. We needed these guys to get away from it. We came back on the 26th and we’re obviously a different team without the conference preseason player of the year the best. ” Player that I’ve ever coached, the guy I thought would end up having an All-American season. “

It took White some time to find the right mix of staff. Sophomore point guard Tre man, a former McDonald’s All American who struggled last season, has emerged as the focus of the crime. Tyree Appleby, a transfer from Louisiana Tech that was canceled last season, has started the last seven games and provided buoyancy on both ends of the floor, allowing the team to pick up the pace. Noah Locke has rediscovered his outside shot. Lewis is healthy again and an X-Factor averaging 10.9 points per game while White has inserted Omar Payne low on the starting line-up for the last four games.

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Florida’s Scottie Lewis turns paint and drops an acrobatic bucket.

“These men [are] play more together without Keyontae. These men [are] We understood that we have reworked everything we do offensively. So that took time and got it back in shape. Back to game shots and an attitude, “said White.” I think when we came back we played for Keyontae, we played with emotions as much as possible, came back to earth a little bit. came to work. … We are obviously better than we were a few weeks ago. “

The biggest development, however, was that Castleton established itself as one of the largest impact transfers in the country. In two seasons in Michigan he averaged 2.3 points, in the first four games of this season an average of 6.5 points. In the last nine games, Castleton averaged 16.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.8 blocks. Against West Virginia, he finished the race with 21 points, 7 rebounds and 5 blocks, helping the Gators hold their own against the glass Derek Culver and the climbers.

“We were just soft in the first half and didn’t play hard enough,” said Castleton after Saturday’s game. “”[Culver] I got a few simple buckets that he wasn’t supposed to have, so I kind of refined that in the second half. Didn’t look at him as easily as in the first half. Got a few layups and really got into it. Basically be soft. “

Florida answered a few questions on Saturday. West Virginia is one of the toughest teams in the country every year and unlike most opponents in the way it smashes the glass and plays physically for 40 minutes. The Gators have fought on the defensive glass and can have problems against teams that consistently attack the color. But despite the mountaineers’ 16 offensive setbacks, Florida – mostly Castleton – went head to toe with them in the color and then made big games on both ends late in the game.

What does it mean to move forward? Florida should have been in the AP Top 25 last week and is likely to be in the rankings this week, but the Gators now have a strong argument to be considered the best team in the league behind Alabama. They’ve already beaten Tennessee and LSU in the league, though they’ll be facing those teams on the road for the next several weeks.

Regardless of what happens in Knoxville and Baton Rouge, White and Florida have put the ship back in order for the past two weeks – leading to victory in Morgantown on Saturday.

“This is really huge, really huge,” said Locke. “I think this is my first on the road since I’ve been here. I mean, it definitely feels great. We just have to keep the momentum going.”

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