Gators overcome turnovers to beat Bulldogs

The most important thing that happened Tuesday night at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center was the Gators (12-6, 4-2) got a win. That the Gators went white knuckles with Mississippi State (7-10, 0-5 SEC) is perplexing but Mike White is not about to give back Florida’s 81-78 win.

“We did just enough; it wasn’t our best game,” Florida coach Mike White said, adding later, “we did barely enough.”

It really shouldn’t have been close. Florida succeeded in fouling out all three of Mississippi State’s big guys and held Gavin Ware (averaging 17.8 coming into the game), Johnny Zuppardo and Aric Holman to a combined 12 points and 8 rebounds but somehow the Bulldogs held their own, matching the Gators 30 points in the paint.

Florida’s inability to protect the ball allowed the Bulldogs in to keep it close. The Gators came into the game averaging only 11 turnover per game but they gave it up 15 times and the Bulldogs converted them into 20 points. Florida, on the other hand, whose calling card coming into the game was defense, forced only 8 turnovers.

At the end of both halves, the Gators went into a defensive coma. Florida led by 8 with five minutes to go in the first half but trailed by 5 when the horn sounded. After fighting back from an 11-point second half deficit to take an 8-point lead with 6:30 remaining, Florida went comatose on the defensive end once again. Mississippi State battled back from a 73-65 deficit to take the lead at 76-75 with 2:33 left in the game. Following two free throws by John Egbunu that gave Florida a 77-76 lead, Craig Sword, who scored 11 of Mississippi State’s final 13 points, snaked through a crowd in the paint for a jack knife bank shot with 46 seconds to make it 78-77.

Five second later, Egbunu defied the odds by hitting his third and fourth consecutive free throws to pull the Gators back ahead by one, 79-78. Florida’s defense made a nice stand at the other end, forcing a wild miss by Travis Daniels that Dorian Finney-Smith (20 points, 13 rebounds) grabbed and outletted to Justin Leon. That was the last hurrah for the Bulldogs as the Gators came through in a rather unusual way. Unusual in that Florida hit four clutch free throws in the last 41 seconds – two by Egbunu with 41 seconds to go, two by KeVaughn Allen with one second remaining for a 3-point lead. The Bulldogs still had hope for a miracle finish, but a length of the court inbounds pass skipped off fingers near midcourt as the final horn sounded.

Florida’s defense disappeared in the final 5:26 of the first half. The Gators were up 32-24 following back-to-back 3-pointers by Allen and Dorian Finney-Smith and seemed to be on their way to a double figures lead at the half when I.J. Ready caught fire. Starting with a 3-ball from the top of the key with 5:26 to go, the Bulldogs outscored UF 18-5 the rest of the half. It was a Ready layup with 1:10 to go – his eighth straight point – that gave Mississippi State its first lead since the 13:53 mark at 37-36. After John Egbunu went 1-2 from the line with 55 seconds to go, Quinndary Weatherspoon scored on a stickback, then got a rebound at the other end of the floor to set up a 40-foot 3-point heave at the buzzer by Fred Thomas for a 42-37 lead.

Mississippi State picked up where it left off at the start of the second half, outscoring the Gators 14-8 for a 56-45 lead. At that point, the Gators looked like they were about to be run out of their own gym, but mysteriously they rediscovered some defense and that got the offense going. Starting with a 3-pointer by Devin Robinson with 15:08 left in the game, the Gators found their game at both ends of the floor. The Gators hit open shots, found cutters with passes for easy shot opportunities and cleaned both the offensive and defensive backboards. The result was a 28-9 run that seemed to put the Gators in command with 6:30 to go but at that point it seemed as if UF ran out of gas. 

Just like the end of first half, Florida collapsed defensively and the offense went sour. Instead of finding open shooters, the Gators mishandled the ball and clanged shots off the iron, allowing Mississippi State to rise from a near death experience a second time. The Bulldogs’ end of the second half run put them in position to pull out their first SEC win of the season. In those final minutes, the Gators had no answers for senior Craig Sword (17 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists). Sword scored 7 straight points to pull Mississippi State within 1 at 73-72 with 3:44 to go and gave the Bulldogs their final lead of the night with 46 seconds left. Fortunately for the Gators, Sword didn’t touch the ball in the final seconds.

Finney-Smith’s 20 points and 13 rebounds marked the third straight game he’s had a double-double. He was joined in double figures by Allen, who followed up a 27-point explosion at Ole Miss last Saturday with a 19-point effort, Egbunu (16 points and 7 rebounds) and Robinson (11 points, 5 rebounds).

It was the second straight game the Gators have hit the 80-point mark. The Gators shot 9-21 from the 3-point line (42.9%) and 44.8% (26-58) overall. At the foul line the Gators were 20-33 but take away the combined 1-8 by Justin Leon (8 points, 8 rebounds) and Kevarrius Hayes and UF was a respectable 19-25.

Florida returns to action Saturday against Auburn at the O-Dome while Mississippi State will travel to Ole Miss.


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