The jam-packed O'Connell Center crowd of 12,228 didn't witness a thing of beauty, but they got a chance to see a resilient team that found ways to make it all work even on a night when a lot of things weren't clicking. This was a night when getting the win was all that mattered.
Getting the win meant battling through two stagnant periods, one in each half, when the Gators couldn't buy a basket. Getting the win meant playing through so much foul trouble in the first half that Donovan had to go zone to protect Lee Humphrey from a third foul and showing zone at the start of the second half to prevent Mississippi State from targeting Humphrey or Corey Brewer to pick up a cheapie third foul. Getting the win meant playing through sickness as Al Horford and David Huertas were trying to go with a case of strep throat.
"The fact that we beat them by 15 with what we had to overcome between illness and foul trouble is remarkable," said Donovan, whose team broke a string of six straight games with more assists than turnovers. The Gators turned the ball over 15 times against Mississippi State and had but 12 assists. The Gators came into the game averaging 20.8 assists per game, best in the nation. Florida also shot only 43.6 percent from the floor for the game, far below the 53.3% that was leading the nation prior to the game.
It was the first half foul trouble that slowed the Gators down and put them into an offensive funk. Florida led 26-12 when Humphrey picked up his second foul at the 10:16 mark. Brewer got his second foul 20 seconds later. Normally, Donovan sits his starters the rest of the half when they pick up two fouls so Humphrey and Brewer went to the bench.
Mississippi State seized on the situation by going zone. The threat of Humphrey and the three-ball kept them in a man defense the first ten minutes of the game. Brewer provides the element of the slasher who can beat people off the dribble and take it to the rack. With those two threats neutralized, the Bulldogs mounted a sizeable comeback, scoring 13 straight points before Horford hit a free throw at the 4:32 mark to end a scoreless drought of nearly five minutes.
During the Mississippi State run, the Gators couldn't get the ball inside and nothing was falling from the outside. Florida couldn't penetrate the zone nor could the Gators get good open looks from the outside.
"Against a zone you really have to get the ball to the baseline and to the middle of the floor and we didn't get the ball to either of those two spots," said Donovan. "Guys stood around and we passed the ball and got caught taking some ill-advised spots."
There was a point during that dry spell that point guard Taurean Green came over to the bench to ask Donovan if he was shooting too much.
"I said no, who else is going to shoot?" said Donovan. "You got no one else on the floor, everyone else is sitting by me."
Green kept shooting, which is a good thing. His three-pointer with the shot clock winding down with 8.5 seconds left in the half broke a 32-32 tie to give Florida the lead at the half.
The combination of the foul trouble and a short bench because of illness forced Donovan to go zone which took away the quickness advantage the Gators had on defense. It was on the defensive end that Florida dominated in the first ten minutes of the game when they jumped to the 14-point lead. When the Gators had to go zone they were forced to play passively because Donovan was forced to put Humphrey back in the game to try to stretch Mississippi State's defense.
"I put to Humphrey back in the game which I very rarely do with two fouls but our lead went from 12 to tied so quickly so I told Lee you can't foul," said Donovan. "The first possession of the second half, I thought they may try to go at Corey Brewer or they may go at one of our guys to try to pick up a third foul so I just showed zone for one possession to start the second half. If they had a designed play to go at one of our guys I didn't want to pick up their third and all of a sudden it's 19:30 to go in the game and we got another guy with three fouls.
Humphrey was the spark that lit a fire under the Gators in the second half. The Bulldogs cut the lead to a single point at the 18:09 mark but Humphrey answered with a three-pointer 12 seconds later and then Brewer was knocked down attempting a three-pointer at the 17:31 mark. Brewer hit all three of his free throws to give Florida a seven-point lead at 41-34.
From there, Florida went on a 19-6 run to stretch the lead to 20 points, 60-40, with 11:13 to go. Florida's defense was much better with Brewer in the lineup to provide harassment on the perimeter. Brewer got an alley-oop dunk during the run and Humphrey provided a second three ball. That run was the most impressive stretch of basketball the Gators played during the game.
"We just came out and played basketball like we can to start the second half," said Brewer. "That's why we got the victory."
The big run proved critical for the Gators because they went into another scoring drought. Mississippi State outscored Florida 14-4 over a stretch of more than six minutes to halve the Gators lead to 64-54, but that's when the Gators righted the ship. Green hit two threes, the second as the shot clock wound down to four to increase Florida's lead to 15, 71-56. Those two shots were the dagger to the heart that killed off the Mississippi State rally.
Green finished the night with 20 points to lead Florida's scoring. He hit 5-11 from beyond the arc. Brewer had 18 points that included 10-13 shooting from the foul line. Humphrey was the third Gator in double figures with 13. He continued his remarkable run of three-point shooting with a 3-5 effort. He's 52-94 for the season, 55.3 percent.
Horford missed Monday and Tuesday practice because of strep throat but he still got in 19 minutes and managed to score seven points. Joakim Noah had an off night offensively, managing only five points but he had seven rebounds and three blocked shots. In the absence of scoring output of the two big men, the Gators got a combined 10 points and eight rebounds off the bench from Moss and Chris Richard to help pick up the slack. Moss had eight points and three rebounds while Richard had two points, five rebounds, a blocked shot and a steal.
Donovan was particularly pleased with the effort Moss gave.
"Adrian Moss played 7-8 minutes against Georgia," said Donovan. "I'm very respectful of the fact that as a fifth year senior he had the maturity to keep his focus on the next challenge. He could have very easily gone in the tank tonight and not even been available because he was mentally upset because he thought he should play some more but the maturity level just to focus in on the next game and he got his opportunity and made the most of it. Chris Richard got his opportunity and took the most of it."
Donovan continues to be amazed at the level of maturity shown by a team that starts four sophomores and one junior, only one of which was a starter last season. The Gators are ranked second nationally but before the season began some "experts" had them ranked fifth in the SEC East. They have responded by playing like a team with a chip on its collective shoulders.
"They feel like they have something to prove," said Donovan. "I don't think they are a team that feels like because they are 15-0, okay we've done enough right now and we can let down our guard. I think it's bigger than that for these kids. It's not about being ranked number two in the country. It's not about being ranked number one in the country. It's not about the polls. It's nothing more than it's about them trying to become the best they can be as a group."
The Gators will try to run their SEC record to 3-0 and their overall record to 16-0 Saturday when they play host to Auburn in a game that has been rescheduled for 6 p.m. to accommodate television.