“I really didn’t know all of them could shoot like that,” Bulldog guard Craig Sword said. “It was tough trying to guard them.”
Tough to at times impossible. Yet Sword and his Mississippi State teammates ought to have known how adept Florida can be at the arc. They arrived averaging almost nine treys-per-game, best in the SEC. So collapsing and/or helping in the paint only gave other Gators openings to show skills. Florida fired over half their shots, 31 out of 56, from long range and made a season-high 14 of them.
With an eighth-straight win Florida left 16-2, 6-0 SEC and tied for the league lead. The Bulldogs dropped a fourth-straight conference game and are 7-11, 2-4. The margin was State’s worst in Humphrey Coliseum since a 41-point defeat by Vanderbilt in 1993.
“I think Florida is by far the best team in the SEC,” Coach Rick Ray said. “And I would venture to say probably playing better than anybody else in the nation right now.”
The Gators certainly were better than State, in all aspects that mattered. They got careless at times with the ball and set up some cheap Bulldog points in the process, but more than made up for it everywhere else. The 55% overall shooting, a 44-20 advantage in rebounding, and 23 assists would have meant a comfortable win anyway. Sizzling outside shooting turned it into a romp.
“I thought we moved and passed and shared the ball, we were really unselfish, and we got really good looks,” Gator Coach Billy Donovan said.
Frustrating Ray all the more was that Florida did not specifically scheme for an outside game, even if Mississippi State has the SEC’s poorest perimeter defense. The Gators wanted to work the ball in to Patrick Young and Erik Murphy, the obvious way to attack a Bulldog frontcourt with only one true post player and he a freshman. The ball did indeed come into Young, early and often.
Only to come right back out to a teammate in shooting position. “We took open shots,” Gator guard Kenny Boynton said. “Patrick did a great job finding us when they doubled him in the post, he found shooters and we knocked them down.” Boynton more often than most as he hit four of eight trey-tries and scored 18 points. Murphy vacated the lane for easier outside pickings and hit four threefers of his own for 18 total points. Scottie Wilbekin added three threes and 13 points while Michael Frazier came off the bench for two longballs and six points.
“We weren’t rotating right and getting on our man, and they were getting wide-open shots,” Sword said. “And they were hitting them.”
Just 13 seconds into the evening Murphy banged home the first trey. The Bulldogs shrugged that one off and even grabbed a very brief lead on goals by Sword and center Gavin Ware. But when Boynton struck at 17:34 to regain the advantage Florida never looked back. “We didn’t want to get out to a start like against Georgia,” Boynton said. “Murph started us out hitting shots and I wanted to follow.”
A Boynton bomb put the lead in double-digits by 13:44, and a five-minute scoreless stretch made for a 31-8 margin at 8:31. The Bulldogs weren’t able to break 20 points by halftime, trailing 41-19 after shooting just 29%. Florida already had six treys to none for the home team, and opened the second half with a 15-2 surge just in case any thought it might remain a game.
“This is a game where I thought early they did a good job taking Patrick away, we weren’t able to get the ball to him in space to operate,” Donovan said. “What you give up is things on the perimeter.” But the Bulldogs didn’t always take Young away, as he hit all four of his first-half shots including consecutive rebound baskets.
“Our post guys let him catch the ball that deep, and you have to help in some shape or form,” Ray said. That poison-picking the Bulldog coach could accept; his own team’s lack of offensive structure was a different matter. State wasn’t actually caught by the shot clock but took so long looking for any chinks in the Gator defense they had to force some shots even worse than their norm.
Junior guard Jalen Steele in particular struggled, as Boynton harassed him mercilessly into what Ray called “ill advised shots.” State’s only backcourt veteran was 0-of-5 and sat out much of the frustrating fourth quarter. Sword and Thomas tried picking up that and other slack but that meant taking too many guarded or hurried shots of their own. They were 9-of-25 combined and 1-of-9 at the arc with Thomas making the trey.
He did pick some second half pockets and ended up with a game-best 19 points, as well as seven steals. That tied for the second-best in school records, while Sword had five steals of his own. Forward Colin Borchert hit some second-half treys and finished with ten points, same as Ware. The rookie center struggled against old hand Young but did make five of his seven shots.
Unfortunately, Ware said, “I really didn’t have the rebounds because they had big guys.” Ware settled for three boards in 23 minutes and did well to reach those caroms. “I tried to give it my best but how it turns out is how it turns out.”
“We knew we were a little bigger than them,” Murphy said of the 24-rebound advantage. “And when they play zone it allows some offensive rebounding.” But the Bulldogs stayed with the zone despite Florida’s sizzling shooting to minimize foul troubles. At least that worked out with just 12 personals all evening, same as the Gators.
Rebounds and assists stood out more to Ray than anything else. “I talked about they have the best players in the SEC. But their willingness to share the ball is by far their best attribute.” Wilbekin had nine of his team’s 23 scoring passes.
“I didn’t think we competed the way we needed to compete,” Ray said. “We got so wrapped-up in our offense tonight we let our defense slide.”
Neither side of State’s game is working very well at the moment and opponents are seizing opportunity. Combined with last week’s loss to Alabama, the Bulldogs have for the first time in Humphrey Coliseum history been beaten by 30 or more points consecutively at home. They do get a quick chance to halt that stat at least as State hosts Texas A&M on Wednesday at 8:00.