And, hopefully, to recover from a thorough thrashing in the league tournament. A Mississippi State squad with every reason to play well against an opponent they had beaten during the regular season might as well have not reported for Friday's rematch in Atlanta. Because long before intermission the Gators had their win locked up, leaving the Bulldogs openly fuming.
"We were angry as a whole at what was going on," forward Ontario Harper said. "That wasn't our team that was out there in the first half."
Perhaps not. And whoever it was wearing maroon on the court Friday was no competition for a Gator team that came to play. "Florida kicked our butts," guard Shane Power said bluntly. "They played with the kind of energy and intensity it takes to win a game like this. And we just didn't have it, from the start."
Indeed the Dogs were so lacking ‘it' that midway of the last half Coach Rick Stansbury had essentially signaled surrender by benching all starters but Harper and going with various substitute lineups. Unlike Thursday's game, when the bench team made the difference in a first-round victory over Georgia, the backups were on court to at least put up a fight to the finish.
"I was playing my team that was playing the best," Stansbury said. "That team was playing with some energy and some emotion. That's all I was asking."
The second squad gave all that, and maybe a bit more. The backups certainly provided most of what would pass for ‘highlights' from Mississippi State, such as the trio of three-pointers and 14 total points from guard Jamall Edmondson. Other subs matched that with total and the bench ended up with almost half of State's scoring. But there was never the slightest chance of a serious comeback.
Nor did Stansbury care by that point, asking only that his team finish with some semblance of pride before a SEC audience. "He was like ‘I'm going to play the guys with a passion for the game'," Harper said.
By contrast the Gators played passionately from the tip, jumping to a 9-2 lead in just two minutes and never trailing. Even when the Bulldogs made their one brief stab and keeping things competitive, Florida remained poised and primed to take charge when the opportunity came. It did, and they did, leaving State's veteran starting squad far behind and frustrated.
"It seemed like everything was missing," Harper said.
The Bulldogs were definitely missing all the things that let them beat Florida 71-57 in Starkville back on February 1, in Starkville. Home-court advantage was the least of the missing factors, too. "We prepared for the game," guard Winsome Frazier said. "But I don't know what happened. We played them tough the first game, it didn't happen that way."
It did not help that State was not up to the same physical speed as in the first meeting, either. Power was paying a price for playing Thursday on a sprained ankle. A pre-game shot numbed the pain but could not give full mobility, and the senior would net just three points in 22 minutes. "I shouldn't have played, I didn't have anything to give us."
Frazier too was slowed, his January-broken foot unable to follow up 30 Friday minutes effectively. Between them Power and Frazier were 3-of-12 shooting, and 1-of-9 at the arc. Stansbury said both were "shells" of themselves, "but we're not going to use them as excuses."
The coach had a much bigger problem with lackluster overall effort, aches and pains notwithstanding. Forward Lawrence Roberts said it was obvious "pretty early" that the Bulldogs had not come ready to play this Friday. "When they knocked down some shots and we just didn't respond," he said.
Florida began exposing State's issues immediately as four different Gators scored in that 9-2 start. State did recover from that initial assault, and a trey by guard Dietric Slater (the first sub, and in by the third minute) and dunk-and-steal from Harper showed some spark. In fact the margin would bounce from two to four points from 16:37 to 11:32 with the Dogs matching each Florida score…or just as often, each turnover, because both teams were reckless with the ball. Stansbury knew things were not looking good by the 15:00 mark, when State had a two-on-one fastbreak and guard Gary Ervin threw the ball off the backboard. "You have to convert that," the coach said. Though that missed chance stood out most to Stansbury, there were plenty others in a stretch where each squad was essentially out of control.
But this end-to-end style played better to Florida's strengths. Starting from a 19-15 lead, after Harper scored on a layup, the Gators used their big guns to best advantage as SEC scoring leader Anthony Roberson hammered home a three-pointer. Matt Walsh fed David Lee for a dunk, then threw in an open trey of his own. As quickly as that the lead was 27-17.
Harper did what he could to respond with consecutive baskets, but Florida had an answer for everything…usually a three-point jumper, such as Walsh's off-the-iron number at 6:30. Roberson scored his own miss and Corey Brewer turned a steal into a dunk that, the score 34-21, had Stansbury calling for time and the Dogs displaying those unhappy faces for the whole house to see. "We were throwing the ball away and they were going down and scoring," said Harper.
The Gators didn't stop scoring, either, as Walsh hit from at least 25 feet out and Roberson tossed in another trey. When Adrian Moss tipped a UF miss in at the buzzer it capped a 46-29 half, with 18 of the points on threeballs. For their part the Bulldogs led in just one category—turnovers, with ten.
Rules required that the second half be played, and the Gators enjoyed the final 20 minutes. By 12:53, when Roberson finished a break with a stuff, the Florida margin hit the high point of 25 points, at 63-38. Stansbury had already begun sending in the second-teammers, and while this did let the aching starters rest up some they took little solace in watching younger pups—joined by Harper—play with the sort of enthusiasm lacking from the veterans.
Harper, who turned in 32 minutes, finished with a team-best 16 points including a pair of treys. Roberts was held to eight points, hitting just two of eight shots, and five rebounds—his lowest output since a foul-shortened stint at Kentucky. Baskets by the backups padded the team's final accuracy average to a deceptive 43%. Stansbury was looking at other numbers anyway.
"When we get outrebounded by 15, that tells me we're not playing with toughness and energy." And the Dogs, the SEC's best board-team, lost this matchup 41-26. It was nothing short of humiliating. "They out-toughed us today," Harper said. "We weren't playing defense like we're used to playing. And on top of that they out-rebounded us."
Roberson beat his season average with 19 points while Brewer added 17, Walsh 15 and Lee a dozen with nine rebounds. The Gators hit a dozen threes in 24 tries. "You have to tip your hat to Florida for playing a great game," Harper said.
For their part the Dogs did not even put in a respectable performance on the SEC's big stage. But they do have another chance in an even bigger event, as well as some extra—if undesired—time to heal bodies and souls for the postseason. Stansbury had the team return to Starkville Friday night and was planning for the weekend already.
"We'll practice Sunday and then go to the locker room for the selection show," he said. Media representatives were even invited to join the Dogs in their kennel, for the first time this season. And neither coach nor players had any preferences for where they will be sent by the NCAA. "We just want to extend our college careers as long as possible," said senior Roberts.
"We've got to put this game behind us and move on to the next season," Frazier said.