Including, unfortunately, the ball. With just over three ticks to try anything State rolled the inbounds pass upcourt, only for freshman guard Ben Hansbrough to lose control in an attempt to get across halfcourt for the planned desperation pass-and-shot by fellow frosh Barry Stewart. The horn sounded with the ball on hardwood. "It's disappointing," guard Barry Stewart said. "We didn't even get a shot at the last shot to take it to overtime."
Florida evaded both OT and upset, improving to 18-2 and maintaining the SEC's only unblemished record at 5-0. The Gators also gained a game in the East standings with Kentucky's loss at Georgia. Mississippi State (11-7) slipped under break-even at 2-3 SEC saw a six-game home winning streak in conference play dating back to last February ended.
But it was close. Uncomfortably close for a Gator team that came in averaging 83 points per game and an average victory margin of 25 points. And close enough that, unlike some previous last-chance letdowns, the Bulldogs talked as if they'd won at least something. "This is experience we need," soph guard Jamont Gordon said. "We're learning from being down and coming back, we kept fighting. We're going to get to the point where we know how to pull those things out."
Of course the defending national champions do have experience in such situations and it showed. After watching their longest lead of the tense evening, nine points at 8:54 of the last half, evaporate Florida was challenged with a 62-62 deadlock and a frantic home crowd. 4:24 remained for the Bulldogs to score their first win over a #1-ranked club in the 32-season history of Humphrey Coliseum. The shot to regain lead, by star center Joakim Noah, was missed.
But the loose ball was bumped out-of-bounds by a Bulldog. With State zoning the inbounds play, guard Taurean Green broke open in the right corner and sank a three-pointer at 3:49. "Him making that shot was absolutely no surprise," said Stansbury. Nor was it shocking when, after missing a dunk, Noah got a hand on his own carom and tipped it in for a 67-62 cushion with 2:36 left.
It was a four-point difference going into the last minute when UF's Corey Brewer took an ill-advised shot that missed. State center Charles Rhodes scored on a rebound and Green hit one free throw for a two-point Florida lead. Stansbury called time at 0:17.1 to set up a play, with team top-gunner Stewart supposed to shoot for the lead and the win.
"We had a double-screen at the top of the key, we ran it effectively but the postman over-played and got outside on me," Stewart said. "That left Jamont open." True, but just for a layup at 0:04 as Gordon didn't risk wasting seconds trying to get fouled. "I made sure I made it. I didn't know how much time was left, I just tried to get the shot up."
Green was fouled and made both free chances for the three-point lead, with 3.1 seconds leaving few options to attack. "With no timeouts what you'd like to pitch it to Stew and get a three-pointer off," Stansbury said. "You wish you could have got it up in the air and at least get a shot off."
Then again, given the back-and-forth nature of the contest Florida might well have responded as a league-leader should. The Gators were just a bit better in most key aspects, such as shooting (42% to 37%) and rebounding (42 to 34). State did make one more trey but needed nine more tries to do it. And in clearly-clutch situations somebody in orange typically came through.
Particularly Brewer, whose last needles shot didn't take away from a spending night. He led all scorers with 20 points, hitting for three treys and seven free throws. The outside punch was a surprise given Brewer's 12 treys in the previous 19 games. "He was the X-factor tonight," Stansbury said. Green added 11 points and Noah ten with eight rebounds and three blocks. Center Al Horford only scored nine, five of that at the stripe, but ruled the glass with his 14 rebounds. "He was a load inside, we couldn't keep him off the backboards," said Stansbury.
Gordon led State with 17 points and four assists, but was 5-of-17 shooting; 2-of-11 in the first half. Stewart was more efficient, 5-of-9 with three threes for 16 points off the bench. Swingman Dietric Slater scored 10 in relief but was 4-of-13. While both Gordon and Slater did rush some of their attempts, they also had little choice at times. Especially when the Gators switched to zones to keep the ball away from both the posts and Stewart.
"They were denying on our side and we kept running the clock down, then we had to force something up," Gordon said. Rhodes, limited to 25 minutes with fouls, took just seven shots for his nine points and had only four rebounds. Fellow starter Vernon Goodridge lasted only a dozen total minutes before fouling out.
"They managed to get us in foul trouble and that dictated the way the game was played," Stansbury said. "It forced us not to play big as much as we wanted." Yet going small wasn't a bad tack either, especially in the first half when a four-guard lineup gave the bigger Gators problems. The Bulldogs were able to harass around the perimeter and disrupt Florida's preferred pace of play. The Gators shot only 35% for the first half and were back on their heels defensively, scoring only five fast-break points.
"I believe we surprised them," Stewart said. "I don't know if they came out and took us lightly but we gave them a game tonight."
Gordon scored State's first eight points, with a pair of treys, to match the Gator team through 14:40. Stewart's shot to break the tie missed but Slater swiped the rebound and scored it, then added a three of his own. Another longball, from Hansbrough, had Florida calling time, but after a Noah dunk Stewart was good from the arc and the Bulldogs led 19-10 midway of the half.
"I thought we were hurting them in transition, that's when they went zone," Stansbury said. "Our quickness hurt them." It even offset size mis-matches such as the 6-3 Slater sticking on 6-11 Noah, and vice-versa. Slater said this rattled Florida's big men and opened lanes for MSU scores. "They stopped helping and played a little wishy-washy."
There were good chances to stretch that margin, miss-played. Florida used the reprieve and slashed their deficit to three, then two at 23-21 on a bomb by Green. He tried to tie it up only to have the driving attempt blocked by Varnado. Stewart briefly halted the UF surge with an open three but the Gators got an inbounds jumper by Brewer with one tick on the shot clock ruled good at 3:11 as, while the horn sounded, the lone second still showed.
With the score 28-27 Horford shuffled his shoes working for the go-ahead shot. A three-point play from Stewart and rebound bucket by Varnado let the Bulldogs go to their locker room up 33-29. Half of State's dozen made baskets for the period were three-pointers and the team had two turnovers for the entire 20 minutes.
That lead quickly doubled to 37-29 on a Goodridge hook and Gordon rattler. Florida kept going at the goal and drawing calls, with Goodridge fouling out less than three minutes into the half and Rhodes getting his third personal. But both teams were chilly at the charity stripe so the Gators still trailed by the first media timeout 38-35, with the ball.
Brewer scored the inbounds pass and after blowing one breakaway converted a second chance for Florida's first lead since 14:40 of the opening half. Stansbury subbed-in Stewart and it paid off with a quick three and shorter jumper for a 43-39 State lead. But after layups by Humphrey and Noah gave the Gators the lead back 45-43 the State coach called for time. It didn't help as Slater lost the ball for a Green layup, then Slater forced a long miss and at the other end Humphrey made his for a 50-43 UF advantage.
Rhodes got State's first points in three minutes with a power-move and immediately picked up his fourth personal at 10:23. But it was backcourt gaffes and three-straight turnovers that helped UF most, the MSU mistakes turned into threeballs by Humphrey and Brewer for a 56-47 lead. Still the home side wasn't calling it a night. "That's a testament to our team, we don't die," Stewart said. Rhodes checked back in and muscled for a three-point play, and Gordon scored four-straight on a dunk and foul shots. Reginald Delk drained the corner-three for a two-point difference, and at 4:24 Rhodes went to the line and evened the evening at 62-all.
A half-minute later Green delivered the biggest shot of the contest. "We were in a zone and they ran a play for him to get and open shot, and he knocked it down," said Gordon. State couldn't do the same at the other end, and usually wasted precious seconds in the process. "There was absolutely some shots you wish you could have had back," said Stansbury. "We made some big shots, but you'd like to see that ball go through a couple of guys' hands more." Most of the 10,338 in attendance would agree.
The loss was State's 11th-straight to a ranked opponent since 2004. Still it didn't seem to deflate the Dogs overly, which is critical as they prepare to host South Carolina this Saturday at 6:00. The Gamecocks scored their first SEC win of the season Wednesday by beating Arkansas, so while they won't bring a ranking to Humphrey Coliseum the stakes are just as high for a MSU team now back under .500 in the league standings.
"We know we've got a big game coming up," Stewart said.