Not of course that Gator woes were of any MSU concern. "It was a must-win," said guard Dee Bost. "It's a big boost for us."
Coach Rick Stansbury seconded that notion, though not simply for the SEC season implications. "What I was really proud of was the way we had to win it," he said. "After Thursday I don't think anybody, anywhere gave us a chance today. We bounced back in 36 hours against the best team in the SEC." Allowing for the fact that in the last two weeks the Bulldog coach has also referred to first Georgia, then Vanderbilt as the ‘best team in the SEC' the other point was very valid.
Because barely 40 hours after a numbing homecourt loss to Vanderbilt, the Bulldogs were ready for this tipoff and this matchup. "We did whatever we had to do to win this game," said guard Ravern Johnson.
What State did was shoot well early, then play hard and generally good defense late. After Florida forced the day's final tie at 64-64, the Dogs found an fresh level of energy and even execution on the far end of the court to hold the Gators scoreless the last 3:32. In fact they didn't get a basket for the final 5:40. And while Florida came away with a 43-37 edge in total rebounding, down the stretch the crucial caroms ended up in Dog paws.
"The things that beat us Thursday night didn't beat us this game," Stansbury said. "That's what we talked about in the timeout (taken at 5:40). We got beat on some effort plays and some turnovers, those two things didn't happen tonight. There were no offensive putbacks and no turnovers down that stretch."
Bost led the four Bulldogs—all starters—who scored with 25 points, half that total coming on his four treys while adding five assists. He did so despite lingering effects from a Thursday late-game collision that loosened one tooth and generally rang his bell. He had the tooth glued to another for today, and will eventually need removal. Bost still put in 38 minutes.
"Of course I wasn't going to let nothing stop me unless I had bad headaches." Instead Bost was Florida's chief headache, not only for his offense but the harassment of Erving Walker. The Gator guard netted a team-best 18 points but needed 6-of-17 shooting to get it and was only 2-of-8 at the arc. Center Vernon Macklin was the other Gator in double-figures with 10 points, while forward Chandler Parsons got nine points and ten rebounds but rarely seemed sure what his role was in this particular matchup.
Johnson had 15 points for State, while both Augustus and center Renardo Sidney scored 16 and combined for 14 boards. Like Bost, their defensive efforts might have mattered more in the last half as Florida couldn't get into any offensive rhythm. "They basically try to go in the post, and shoot threes," said Johnson. "So we knew to double-team in the post to try to get turnovers, and contest every shot they took."
Few contested like Augustus, who after a litany of struggles this season saw almost everything fall into place this day. He even opened the scoring with an open threeball that, while only a single bucket, just struck the right spark with a squad that could use some quick confidence.
"We needed that, he played real well," said Bost of Augustus' efforts. "He knew he had a mismatch and could take advantage of his quickness and shooting ability, so that's what he did."
"Kodi got us going," Stansbury said. "Kodi played hard, made shots, drove late in the game and got to the rim and got fouled. He played with a lot of toughness, and went to the line and made his free throws."
State was gunning from the get-go and with the shots falling was able to more than over-match the more controlled Florida approach. The lead was in double-digits already by 14:33, and even when Walker finally got his team's first longball to fall, Augustus answered with MSU's fifth for a 25-15 lead.
Momentum had to slow though, and Sidney helped with an elbow to the jaw of Patric Young for an intentional foul at 9:34. A free free throw and Walker drive had the Gators within 25-22. The sequence actually had a positive outcome as instead of trying to show off his shooting skills Sidney posted up and scored five fast power points. But he had to sit soon, and his absence showed. Florida attacked the rim and either made the first shot go or got the rebound chances. When State sagged Parsons hit a corner trey, and a three-point play by Will Yeguete had the margin down to two.
Even when Sidney returned at 4:38 his guards kept throwing it up and missing. Short shots by Macklin and Walker caught Florida up, but Macklin missed free throws for a lead. Johnson wisely moved inside the arc and popped, and aided by a pair of Gator turnovers State took a 40-38 lead into their locker room.
Post power had worked well in the first half and State came right back to Sidney for four fast points to begin the second. When Bost hit for three at 16:43 the lead was back up to nine. But Florida's outside aim improved and a treys by three different Gators produced their first lead all afternoon, 53-52 at 12:54. A series of scoreboard swaps later they were back up 61-60 on an Alex Tyus tip-in.
But Florida's real problem wasn't as much Dog defense as their inability to convert on unguarded shots. In less than a minute Macklin went to the stripe three times with potential to take six chances; he only made good once, for that 64-all deadlock which Augustus broke with his own make. The Gators had a couple of looks at the goal and blinked, with Augustus getting to the rebound for more charity chips at 0:34 and 0:11 to settle the issue.
"They had some missed opportunities," Stansbury admitted. "They had some missed free throws they could have made, and some missed shots." Florida was just 9-of-19 at the foul stripe while State was 19-of-23. Yet there were other areas where Bulldogs came through this time, such as how they handled full-court pressure without many turnovers or any cheap points.
And after his early outburst Sidney kept himself under control, when on the court as part of State's three-minutes on and rest cycle set up specifically for him. He and Augustus made sure that while Florida had more rebounds, and 24 second-chance points, they didn't get the sort of game-changers Vanderbilt had come up with.
The result was a win Mississippi State simply had to have, assuming that Alabama will take care of visiting LSU tonight. The Bulldogs did not want to fall any farther behind the West leaders, much less settle into the bottom half of the Division and run the risk of an assuredly-fatal Thursday game in the SEC Tournament. A tournament that, even with today's win, appears the easiest avenue for a Bulldog bid to the NCAAs.
Yet, with this RPI-aiding success, State should have a little improved outlook for February especially with the number of Division games in store. And they do have an excellent opportunity to change the game this week when they resume West play at…Alabama. That definitely counts as the next must-win for MSU.
"We've got them Wednesday," said Bost. "And we owe them."