Florida didn’t have too much trouble putting away their first opponent from the Magnolia State.
They had a lot of trouble putting away the second.
This wild, wacky and just plain weird game had more than its fair share of momentum swings. Mississippi State built an 11 point lead, fell behind by eight, came back to take the lead, fell behind again and then missed a potential game winning jumper in the waning seconds. Florida then salted the game away with- of all things- some free throws. And would you look at that, the Gators have won six in a row over Mississippi State, and more importantly are 12-6 and 4-2 in the SEC.
Credit the latest win to a heads-up decision by Mike White.
Down nine with 15:44 to go, the Gators appeared to be in big trouble when Johnny Zuppardo knocked down a jumper to extend the MSU lead to 56-45. That capped a 27-9 stretch for the Bulldogs. But after a White timeout, the Gators applied a heavy press that Mississippi State struggled with, and never quite figured out. By “never quite figured out,” I mean the Bulldogs hit one jumper in the game’s final 15:44. One. Every now and then, Craig Sword or IJ Ready would break the press for a layup (which will happen against even the best teams from time to time), but other than that, plus a few stray free throws, that was pretty much it for the Bulldogs’ offense.
Meanwhile, Florida’s offense found its stroke at just the right time. In between instances of blanketing Mississippi State offensively, the Gators began to slowly heat up. First came a three from Devin Robinson to cut the lead to eight; a few minutes later, Kevaughn Allen hit one to bring it down to five. With the pressure now really on, the Bulldogs’ struggles continued in an even greater capacity. MSU could only score once on its next eleven possessions, a stretch that featured a pair of turnovers, and Florida’s lead ballooned up to eight with 5:23 to go.
But Mississippi State appeared to figure out the press just in time. Sword and Ready began to slice through the press consistently, scoring on layups on four of the Bulldogs’ last six possessions, until MSU had retaken the lead at 76-75 with a minute to go.
Cue John Egbunu and his magical free throw shooting touch.
The USF transfer was fouled on consecutive possessions, an act presumably orchestrated by Ben Howland with the belief that he’d choke, and nailed four straight free throws sandwiched around yet another layup from Sword. After an MSU miss, Justin Leon was fouled- and missed both. But one final time, the Gators locked down defensively, and Ready’s 12 foot runner missed with a second to go. Allen then hit two more free throws to make the whole thing official- Florida had held on. Not without dishing out some high blood pressure to some fans, but they’d held on.
I’ll rephrase a sentence from earlier. Give White some credit. He’s taken a beating for not doing a job some unrealistic fans want him to do to a level that this current team just can’t allow him to do, for reasons of youth and inexperience. But Florida was getting burned defensively in man-to-man, and down eleven, White made a switch that allowed his team a chance to get back into the game if it made some shots at the other end of the floor- which it did.
This team isn’t a great one, but it’s a talented and hungry one with a good strategist as the head coach as well as an improving one. And as the brunt of the schedule approaches, all we can ask of them is to keep improving.