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Gators find a way to win in Starkville

With John Egbunu’s season done for, perhaps Florida’s motto for the rest of this basketball season should be “find a way to win.

That’s what the 13th-ranked Gators (22-5, 12-2 SEC) did Saturday in Starkville when they walked away from Humphrey Coliseum with a paint by numbers 57-52 win over Mississippi State (14-12, 5-9 SEC). This was anything but a masterpiece but fortunately there are no extra points given for aesthetically pleasing victories. The ugly wins count the same as the pretty ones and this was ugly, but the outcome was all about the Gators doing whatever it took to eke out their 12th SEC win of the season.

We've been able to find different ways to win different games," Florida coach Mike White said after the Gators walked off the court with their eighth straight win and assurance that they will remain at the top of the SEC standings when the weekend is through. "It's been different guys night in and night out and this is just another example."

If there was a real hero Saturday, it was Kevarrius Hayes, who has to shoulder the bulk of the minutes at center now that Egbunu is gone for the year. Hayes, who finished the game with 9 points, 10 rebounds and 4 blocked shots, showed off a refuse to lose attitude in the last few minutes. Saddled with four fouls, Hayes still played with reckless abandon on the defensive end and came through with a critical stickback of a blocked shot with 1:57 left in the game to give the Gators the lead for good at 54-52. In the final 1:27, Hayes blocked a shot by I.J. Ready with 30 seconds left to preserve the 54-52 lead, grabbed two offensive rebounds and two rebounds on the defensive end. His first of two free throws with 0:05 left in the game sealed the win.

Hayes wasn’t Florida’s only hero, however.

In a game where Devin Robinson couldn’t get a shot to fall (0-6 from the field and 0-2 from the foul line), he came up with 10 rebounds, a steal and 2 blocked shots. Chris Chiozza hit 6-8 shots from the field (2-3 from the 3-point line) and finished with 14 points, but his greatest contribution was holding the Gators together in a first half that Kasey Hill would just as soon forget. Hill bounced back in the second half to play well and finished the game with 9 points and 5 rebounds, but he had 4 early turnovers and clearly was off his game until after the break.

 Kevaughn Allen scored 11 and Canyon Barry and Justin Leon contributed 7 points each, both of them hitting shots or grabbing rebounds at crunch time as Mississippi State erased a 12-point lead to draw even at 52-52 with 2:23 left in the game.

From that point onward, however, Hayes came through in the middle to dominate the game and bring home the win.    


THE GOOD: As badly as the Gators shot the ball, the UF defense did a number on Mississippi State, holding the Bulldogs to 36.1% overall from the field and a paltry 8.7% (2-23) from the 3-point line.

THE BAD: Florida shot only 38.5% from the field overall (20-52 shooting) and just 27.8% (5-18 from the 3-point line).

THE UGLY: Florida turned the ball over 16 times and Mississippi State converted the miscues into 17 points.

THE GOOD NEWS: With their 12th regular season win, any combination of one Florida win and a loss by either Arkansas or Alabama assures the Gators of the double-bye at the SEC Tournament. Translation: Florida won’t have to play either the first or second day and will make its debut in the quarterfinals on Friday night.

WHAT’S UP NEXT: The Gators will have a chance to exact a measure of revenge Tuesday night when they play host to South Carolina. South Carolina beat the Gators 57-53 in Columbia back on January 26.

FINAL ANALYSIS: Hayes is obviously an emerging talent in the middle, but the Gators have to find a way to protect him. He’s a talented defender who can be an intimidating shot blocker but without Egbunu to share the minutes at center, he’s vulnerable if the zebras have quick whistles. 

Justin Leon gave the Gators a few minutes at center when Mike White had to go with a smaller lineup. Schuyler Rimmer gave the Gators 6 minutes off the bench at center and Keith Stone gave the Gators 2.

The game was very physical but only 29 personal fouls were called. Florida went to the line 19 times (made 12) while Mississippi State was just 6-13. Canyon Barry, shooting 89.7% from the foul line for the season, didn’t get to the line a single time.

You might have to get used to Florida winning ugly. Without Egbunu the game definitely changes for the Gators. Opponents are going to try to bang the Gators hard down low to take advantage of the lack of depth on the inside and the Gators are going to have to counter with the kind of intense defense on the perimeter like we saw Saturday. Mississippi State missed a few open shots, for sure, but for the most part even the open shots were taken far outside the Bulldogs comfort zone. That’s a tribute to the Florida defense which kept pushing the Bulldogs farther and farther away from the basket. 

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