The home court has certainly played to their advantage so far. But these Bulldogs have yet to host…
The margin of victory was relatively modest, and the statistics unspectacular for a league leader and national contender. Which was the evening's entire point. Florida used its advantages in size, strength, skill, experience and almost anything else that mattered to just take care of business. Efficiently, as Bulldog guard I.J. Ready said.
"I don't think they made but one mistake, and I don't remember that mistake. They don't have any mental breakdowns, that's how they were able to pull it out."
Pull away, rather. Mississippi State did give the Gators a challenge, using a surge to end one half and go-ahead basket to begin the second. As late as 15:27 of the period it was just 33-32 Florida lead. That's when Coach Billy Donovan's team made their statement, outscoring State 14-2 and taking control for keeps.
"No disrespect to Mississippi State," said center Patric Young, though he'd twice referred to the home team as A&M. Apologizing, he added "But they're not playing for a conference championship. We're playing for a championship."
These Bulldogs aren't contending for any titles. They did give a good account of themselves against a superior foe, though, and certainly showed up better than last year's match on the same court won 83-58 by the visitors. "We didn't get blown out," said forward Colin Borchert after scoring a team-best 15 points with three three-point goals.
Guard Craig Sword had a dozen points and rookie guard Ready ten. Florida was paced by forward Casey Prather, who exemplified their efficient approach with 7-of-8 shooting. Young was only 6-of-11 against an overmatched MSU frontcourt but half his misses were good attempts that took the wrong role. Both sides' big men had issues with the iron in fact, as well as with free throws.
The play itself was generally plod-and-pound, which should have favored the bigger Gators and ultimately did. But slow whistles also benefited Bulldog big men who had fewer foul problems than usual. And when tempo did pick up it was State benefitting with Ready and Sword pushing the ball better.
Just not enough to score a real upset after falling behind the second-half time. "It's difficult to get back in the game, because they're good," Coach Rick Ray said. "They don't have a lottery pick like most top-five teams, they have a good team. Eventually they're going to keep nicking, nicking and nicking, and finally cut you."
Florida would have preferred pounding based on the start, with Young scoring two quick buckets against State center Gavin Ware…who missed his two initial attempts. What kept the Gators from domination was the series of close misses on offense and a couple of three-balls by Borchert. The second gave a short-lived lead in fact.
Even a spurt with jumpers by three different Gators for a nine-point lead didn't deaden the Dogs. Ray cobbled-together a lineup odd by even by this roster's short standards that worked defensively. "I thought we did a good job competing, I was proud of that group in there at the end of the half with six consecutive stops." Guard Tyson Cunningham threw in a forced three and Ready created a couple of brave baskets for a 27-16 halftime deficit.
State's downfall came when Ware got caught in a defensive scrum and banged his left knee as Young scored at 17:10. He limped off the court and didn't return for five minutes, leaving forward Rocquez Johnson and Borchert to try containing the big Gators. They couldn't. Young and Prather owned the lane and the glass in the deciding stretch as the lead grew to 47-34. Ware returned at 12 minutes and helped stem the surge a bit. Otherwise it was Sword doing all one Dog could to keep it competitive with three strong driving layups in row and a few drawn fouls.
It wasn't enough. Michael Frazier's open three at 2:30 effectively settled things as State didn't get closer than nine. Florida balance showed with four Gators scoring seven-to-nine points apiece, and everybody who saw the court got to a rebound of some sort.
Ray thought his team had battled as best they could for a full period. "But the second half they shot 56% and we just gave up too many timely offensive rebounds. Offensively we had our problems. We had a plethora of opportunities in the first half to finish around the rim."
So had Florida. "I thought offensively both teams had plays around the basket to finish and make and both didn't do a great job," Donovan said. "There were a lot of missed layups." He even called his team's first-half lead "fraudulent" after the easy misses. "Sword and their backcourt guys hurt us on some drives. In the second half we did a much better job closing alleys and gaps."
Which shouldn't have been surprising, Ray said. "They're the number-one defense in the SEC and the reason is they make multiple rotations. They make mistakes but the cover up for it."
"They pack it in and have some big players," said Sword after bouncing off an endless series of Gators trying to find those gaps. "I could hardly get around them when they spread their arms."
Mississippi State's schedule isn't spread out well to bounce-back from the first home SEC loss. They are back on the road, where the Dogs have yet to score a conference win; and headed to Vanderbilt on the short turnaround. Game time is 4:00 at Memorial Gymnasium.
"We're going to play hard and just try to get a win to get back in the SEC," Ready said.