Mississippi State threw in ten treys, seven of them in the first half, and built a series of big leads sufficient to withstand any and all Gator comebacks. With their win the Bulldogs (22-10) advanced to the SEC semifinals and will play the winner of Georgia-Vanderbilt (still in progress at this filing) at 2:15 Saturday. Florida left with a 21-12 record and will spend their Sunday hoping their name is still called as an at-large entry in the NCAA Tournament.
Any resemblance between the Bulldog team that came up utterly flat in their regular-season finale with Tennessee, and the one that dominated Florida for most of this evening in the Bridgestone Center were purely physical. Emotionally there was no comparison, said senior Barry Stewart. "That game was last season as far as I'm concerned. This is a new season and we're competing for a championship."
Shooting for one, too. The #1 West-seeded Bulldogs popped their first three attempts from the floor, a trey by Stewart included, and raced to a 11-0 lead before the Gators knew what had hit them. State made good on 13 of the first 19 total shots and six-of-nine at the arc, and led by double-digits about 15 of the 20 first-half minutes.
"It's so important to our team to get off to a good start," Stansbury said. "That gave us a lot of confidence to keep playing." While every pop of the net increased Bulldog confidence, the early barrage lured a Florida team that rarely relies on longballs in SEC season to try to keep pace. They couldn't at first, not sticking a trey until 12;37. Guard Kenny Boynton did the honors, with the first of his own four treys. By evening's end backcourt partner Erving Walker had hit four as well, as the two guards led their team with 23 and 19 points respectively.
That, Stansbury could live with. Because the Florida frontcourt was kept in-check most of the way with only forward Chandler Parson getting to ten points. Big men Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin had only eight points combined, a remarkable turnaround from a month ago when Florida had won 69-62 on their court.
"I thought defensively the first half we kept the guys at-bay that hurts us the first time we played," Stansbury said. "At halftime Parsons, Macklin, and Tyus had three points between them. I thought we were very efficient. When you're efficient on offense and do some things on defense it gives you a chance to win."
"I thought they played very well, they shot the ball we from the three-point line the first half which gave them a big lead," Florida Coach Billy Donovan said. "They got good production from their post people and very good production from the perimeter. Our team had a hard time defending them."
Defending Varnado in particular. The State center had a little extra motivation for this game as a month ago at Gainesville he had been harassed into his worst shooting of SEC season. He changed his attack this time. Instead of going to the goal he stepped way, moved around, and hook-shotted successfully three times en route to a 7-of-9 effort and 15 points. Stewart was top Dog in scoring with 17 points, just over half of that on his three treys; while guards Dee Bost and Ravern Johnson each struck for a pair and had 10 and 12 points respectively. In fact the whole State starting lineup scored double-digits as forward Kodi Augustus powered for 10.
The Bulldogs were sharp from the tip, keeping Florida's defense on their heels and opening room for makeable shots. Augustus and Bost combined for eight quick points as State leaped in front 11-0. The Gators, strangely settled for trey-tries on four of the first five trips and missed all. Their first bucket didn't come until 16:13 when Walker got into the lane.
State did cool off enough for Florida to steady their slide and even find somebody able to hit from outside, with a Boynton trey making it a 13-9 margin at twelve minutes. A string of turnovers stopped this comeback though and Stansbury was able to steal some bench-minutes for the starters…even slipping John Riek onto the court without it hurting anything.
"We shared the ball," said Stansbury. "Of all the possessions in the first half, we scored on 15 of 24, I didn't think we took but maybe two quick shots. A lots of nights I can't say that. We made the extra pass and we had some guys jump up and make shots."
And the long shots kept falling; Riley Benock, Romero Osby, and Bost got into the outside act as the margin blew up to 15 points by the nine-minute mark. It took Boynton getting as hot as any Dog from the arc to keep his team within sight of State and trailing only 39-28 at halftime.
Boynton added another three to open the next half and for the first time in some 16 game-minutes get the deficit into single digits. It didn't take the Bulldogs long to address that. Augustus made it ten again with a layup to start a seven-point State spurt. If the Gators needed any more proof that they were overmatched this night it came when Stewart got off a heave that swished as he was fouled, for a four-point play.
"There were some tough shots that they made," Donvan said.
Florida had a couple of runs left in them, though waiting until it was a 17-point difference proved a little more than they could ultimately make up. Jumpers by Ray Shipman and Walker allowed the Gators whittled away at the MSU lead and allowed pressure upcourt as well. When Parsons stole an inbounds pass and was fouled for one freebie it was down to a 58-53 margin at 8:17.
Augustus missed his first layup try but got to his own carom for a putback, then powered for another two the next time down. Florida missed consecutive long shots and when Varnado completed a three-point play at 5:51 State was back in front by eleven. That should have been sufficient, but the Gators made it interesting. When Dan Werner was fouled by Phil Turner on a layup suddenly it was a 68-64 game with over two minutes left, and then the Gators got the ball back.
But fearful of Varnado, Boynton simply left his layup short. Bost worked the clock until Johnson shook free inside the arc for a jumper. One more time with a four-point difference Florida had possession and Walker threw the lead pass too high for Werner. When pressure didn't work the Gators had to begin fouling and Stewart made one chance. Boynton got a glasser to go and UF called for time at 26.2 ticks with it a three-point game.
They didn't get the turnover and Stewart canned a pair this time. He added two more at 14.4 seconds to seal the decision.
"We dug ourselves in too deep of a hole and couldn't battle back," Donovan said. Even a big 34-23 edge in rebounding for Florida wasn't enough to offset State's 57% overall shooting and 10-of-20 night at the arc. Maybe the Bulldogs could have played things smarter down the stretch and not rushed a few passes and shots that left the Gators with some hope. But on the whole Stansbury saw little to critique from his club.
"We found a way to do some things you have to do, to give yourself a chance to win."