Walsh's desperate shot found only nylon and it staked the Gators to a 37-24 lead with 3:11 remaining in the half. Earlier, Walsh had launched another deep three from the top of the key although this one was from about eight feet closer. This was a touch 'em all three. The ball bounced two or three times and touched every inch of the iron before it succumbed to gravity and fell through the net.
There was this desperate moment in first 65 seconds of the second half, too, and Corey Brewer, who doesn't exactly strike fear in opponents when he loads one up from beyond the arc, did a catch and toss it up three ball from 25 or so feet. In keeping with the tone of the afternoon, this one was dead center and through the hoop. That three was a statement for Mississippi State that thoughts of a comeback were futile.
That the Gators won (80-64) this second round matchup with Mississippi State so handily is a statement about how far the Gators have come since mid-January when they got hammered in Starkville by these same MSU Bulldogs. In the first game, Florida was shoved around like rag dolls by a Mississippi State team determined to intimidate the Gators from the opening whistle. Florida was rattled early and often, thrown completely out of its offense by aggressive in your face defense that all but stretched the rules of hand to hand combat.
From the opening whistle Friday afternoon, whenever Mississippi State shoved, the Gators shoved back a little harder. When the Bulldogs tried to push the Gators out of their offense, no one panicked or made the kind of silly puffball passes that Mississippi State kept picking off that fateful night in Starkville.
Nearly everything the Gators tried worked on this day. No one would have ever imagined that the Gators could or would blow out Mississippi State, but Florida got a blowout win because the Gators are no longer intimidated by teams that want to muscle it up. That strategy which used to work quite well against Florida was then. This is now and Florida no longer backs down against physical opponents.
Six weeks ago Mississippi State flexed more muscles than Arnold to deliver a sound, bruising beating. Friday afternoon, the Gators who returned the favor by smacking the Bulldogs around from the opening whistle until the game reached a merciful end. Mississippi State was like the bully on the block who gets his nose bloodied the first time. Accustomed as they are to dictating games with their physical presence, the first time they tasted their own blood against Florida they backed down. Once Florida saw blood, the Gators moved in for the kill. Like a boxer who discovers he's got a lethal jab, the Gators kept sticking the leather into the Bulldogs collective faces until they had been turned into raw meat.
There were other signs that this is not your December or January version of the Gators. Anthony Roberson, the SEC's leading scorer, led the Gators with 19 points Friday. Unlike the January meeting with Mississippi State when he was physically knocked around on the perimeter, Roberson answered tight defense by blowing past one Mississippi State defender after another. Sure, he took the time to knock down three three-balls, but it was the variety in his scoring game that was Florida's lethal weapon.
Peep wasn't content to find holes in the defense by skirting the perimeter. He got into the lane for pull up jumpers. He went to the hoop fearlessly, challenging Mississippi State to come up with a defensive answer. In the first half he missed a pull-up 10-footer but he followed his own shot, outjumped Mississippi State's 6-9 All-American Lawrence Roberts for the rebound, then emerged under the rim for a reverse layup.
It was the kind of play you expect of the conference's leading scorer. It was the kind of play you expect for the one guy on your team who's capable of creating his own shot every time down the floor. For Mississippi State, it was just another wound to the chest. Florida kept hurling daggers that found their way dead center to the collective hearts of the Mississippi State players.
Back in January, Shane Power harassed Matt Walsh, rarely letting him free up for a good look at the hoop. Friday, when Walsh wasn't running Power into yet one more screen, he was calmly finding holes in the perimeter defense. He did more than score, contributing four rebounds, two assists and two steals to go with 15 points that came on 5-10 shooting behind the arc.
Another sign of Florida's newfound maturity was in the play of the freshmen, Brewer and Al Horford. Brewer scored a season-high 17 points. He hit 3-4 on threes, had six rebounds, three steals and three assists while playing harassing defense on Power (three points Friday, 18 in Starkville) and Winsome Frazier (six points. He brought down the house in the second half in transition when Walsh alleyed and he finished it off with a profound dunk on the oop.
Horford got a couple of quick fouls in Starkville, probably caused by the combination of inexperience and the nervousness of being a freshman on the road in one of the SEC's most hostile venues. By his own admission, he sulked during the game in Starkville, upset that Mississippi State was doing its best sumo routines while he was getting nailed for touch fouls. With Horford shackled in Starkville, David Lee had no inside support whatsoever.
Lee came to play Friday (12 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two steals), his job made so much easier by the play of Horford. With Horford in the game and contributing, Lee was free to make plays and do what he does best, which is dabble quite well in all phases of the game. When he had openings, he took the ball to the rack. When MSU tried to collapse on him, he found open shooters on the perimeter with sharp, accurate passes. When Roberson drove into the lane in the first half, the defense stepped in to cut him off. He dished to Lee who came flying down the baseline for a thunderous two-hand jam.
Lee also got a showtime dunk on a breakaway in the first half. Horford knocked a pass away that found its way into Brewer's hands. Brewer took two dribbles then hit Walsh who took off the moment Horford got his hands on the ball. It would have been an easy dunk for Walsh, but instead of taking it to the rack himself, he delivered a nice little bounce pass to Lee who skied for a reverse over the head jam.
Though it was just one game of the SEC Tournament and for Florida to win the championship, there are two more games that must be won, this game was a serious statement about how far the Gators have come in the last six weeks. Six weeks ago, there were a lot of folks penciling the Nobody's Interested Tournament (NIT) on the Gators dance card. This win probably secures no worse than a number five seed for UF in the NCAA Tournament. A win Saturday could bring Florida a four, and if the Gators manage what has heretofore been the unachievable --- win the SEC Tournament --- the Gators could expect no worse than a number three seed.
Not bad for a team that some had all but written off just six weeks ago, a team that has been recently looking in the mirror to discover muscles where there once were none.