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Young leads Gators’ second-half surge vs. Bulldogs

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Florida senior center Patric Young said the Gators were challenged to play harder after a lackluster first half against the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

The Gators responded with more intensity the final 20 minutes to avoid an embarrassing upset on the road. Behind a team-high 16 points from senior forward Casey Prather, No. 3 Florida pulled away to beat Mississippi State 62-51 on Thursday night in Starkville, Miss.

“No offense to MSU, but they’re probably not going to win an SEC title,” Young said. “We have a chance to do that this year.”

Young added 12 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots, overcoming first-half foul trouble for a strong game on both ends of the floor. Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin had eight points and eight assists.

Florida (18-2, 7-0 SEC) won its 12th straight game, continuing its longest in-season winning streak since running off 17 victories in a row to start the 2005-06 season.

“(Florida) doesn’t have a lottery pick like a lot of these top teams,” Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said. “They keep nicking you and then finally cut you.”

The Bulldogs (13-7, 3-4 SEC) kept things interesting early. Mississippi State, which lost by 35 points at home against Florida last season, trailed the Gators just 27-26 at halftime.

Junior forward Colin Borchert led Mississippi State with 15 points. Sophomore guard Craig Sword added 12 points and freshman point guard I.J. Ready had 10 points and four rebounds. The Bulldogs dropped to 11-2 at home this season.

“We didn’t get blown out,” Borchert said.

But Ray, in his second season of a rebuilding project at Mississippi State, didn’t view the game as a moral victory.

“In the first half, we did a good job of competing,” Ray said. “In the second half, we gave up too many offensive rebounds.”

Florida out-rebounded Mississippi State 38-30. The Gators also scored 14 points off turnovers and limited Mississippi State to just six trips to the free-throw line. Mississippi State came into the game averaging 27.2 free-throw attempts per game at home. Florida coach Billy Donovan said he felt the Gators did a better job closing off driving lanes to the basket in the second half.

“We forced some turnovers, got some steals and eliminated some of those easy baskets there in the second half,” Donovan said.

Ahead just 27-26 at halftime, Florida built a 13-point lead in the second half. The Gators overcame a poor shooting night on 3-pointers (6 of 20, 30 percent) and at the free-throw line (8 of 19, 42.1 percent).

The Gators came into the game with its highest ranking since climbing to No. 2 in the country Feb. 4, 2013. That week, Florida suffered an 80-69 upset loss at Arkansas.

In the first half against Mississippi State, the favored Gators appeared in danger of another upset loss. Borchert sparked the Bulldogs with two early 3-pointers, helping Mississippi State jump to a 14-13 lead.

Down 16-15, Florida answered with an 8-0 run, which included a 3-pointer from Wilbekin and driving layups in transition from Prather and freshman point guard Kasey Hill. Hill’s layup gave Florida a 23-16 lead.

The Gators extended the advantage to 27-18 on a free throw from walk-on forward Jacob Kurtz, but Mississippi State closed the half with an 8-0 run. Ready scored four points during the run, including a floater in the lane with two seconds left to cut Florida’s lead to 27-26 at halftime.

Florida failed to score in the final 5:28 of the first half. The Gators shot just 37 percent from the field in the first half and Mississippi State shot 42 percent from the floor before the break. Florida missed its final seven shot attempts of the first half.

“I felt like we were getting some good looks,” Donovan said. “I’d be more alarmed if we didn’t take good shots during that span, but I felt like we took good shots.”

NOTES: Florida announced earlier this week that freshman F Chris Walker was cleared by the NCAA. Walker will make his debut Feb. 4 against Missouri. Walker received a 12-game suspension from the NCAA for receiving improper benefits that included free cell phones and service, airfare, lodging, meals and apparel. Under terms of his reinstatement, Walker will repay

Up to the minute news and reports from the news wire of The Sports Xchange.

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SMU outmuscles Connecticut to take AAC title

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HARTFORD, Conn. — After a crushing omission from the NCAA Tournament last season, the 20th-ranked Southern Methodist Mustangs didn’t have any worries during this year’s Selection Show. They are dancing for the first time since 1993.

SMU’s deep and talented frontcourt frustrated the Connecticut Huskies on both ends of the floor, paving the way for the team’s first conference title in 27 years with a 62-54 win in the American Athletic Conference championship game on Sunday.

SMU earned a No. 6 seed and will face No. 11 UCLA in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday in Charlotte, N.C.

“This is big for all of us,” said senior guard Ryan Manuel, “not just the seniors but it’s as big for SMU as a school, as a basketball program. When coach (Larry) Brown got here, he wanted us to put it back on the map, and I think we made great strides in that.”

UConn (20-14), the defending national champion, came into the AAC tournament needing four wins in four days just to return to the NCAA Tournament. After falling just short of their goal, the Huskies are headed to the National Invitation Tournament.

“It’s postseason play,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “If it’s NIT or NCAA, they’re going to learn from it and they’re going to come back better from it. I’m still coaching them the way I coach them, they’re still going to play the way they’re going to play.”

SMU (27-6) was expected to receive an at-large bid if it lost Sunday, but the victory guaranteed it a spot in the NCAA Tournament field after being one of the final teams left out last season.

“Last year at this time was about as disappointing as it could get,” Brown said. “Fortunately we’ve got another opportunity, and didn’t have to get anybody to decide whether we’re worthy or not.”

As it had all weekend long, it was SMU’s frontcourt that anchored the win.

The conference’s Sixth Man of the Year, Markus Kennedy, capped off a strong weekend by leading his team with 14 points, one of four Mustangs players in double figures. He earned the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player for his efforts. The 6-foot-10 junior and his fellow forwards helped SMU to a 43-30 advantage on the glass, with sophomore Sterling Brown pulling in 12 rebounds to lead the team.

Sophomore guard Rodney Purvis had 29 points and was the only UConn player in double figures in scoring.

“I was trying to be aggressive and take what the defense gave me,” he said.

For a while, it appeared this game would not be close. The SMU zone defense that Connecticut had carved up for 81 points just two weeks prior locked things down this time around, and the Mustangs took a 33-19 advantage into halftime by holding UConn to 5-of-24 shooting (20.8 percent) from the floor over the opening 20 minutes.

The Huskies, who made more than 53 percent from the floor and knocked down nine 3-pointers in that win, were just 2 of 13 from beyond the arc in that first half.

Usual leading scorer Ryan Boatright would manage just seven points on 1-of-12 shooting for the game.

“I’m just disappointed in my play,” he said. “I missed a lot of shots that should be easy knock-down shots for me. I didn’t show up and be the player I know I can be, I can be better than that. But my teammates fought, they played a tremendous game.”

UConn made it a game in the second half by doing similar things on the defensive end, thanks in large part to the presence of sophomore Amida Brimah. The 7-foot center, limited to just four first-half minutes because of foul trouble, played the entire second half, blocking seven shots during that time and altering numerous others.

The Huskies were able to get within five points with just over three minutes to play, but the Mustangs would hold on.

“He’s a shot blocker, so it made it a little difficult,” Manuel said about the difference Brimah made in the second half. “UConn, they have a tradition of coming back, and we knew they weren’t going to go down with a fight, so for us to stand there as a team and get the

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Alabama fires head coach Grant

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Alabama fired head basketball coach Anthony Grant on Sunday after six seasons.

The Crimson Tide struggled over the final two months of the season, finishing 18-14 and tied for eighth in the Southeastern Conference.

Grant, 48, won at least 20 games three times and made an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2012. His Alabama teams went 117-85, including two NIT appearances (2011 and 2013). He came to Alabama from Virginia Commonwealth University, where he went 76-25 and made two NCAA Tournament appearances.

“This has been a very difficult decision, as I have the highest respect for Anthony as a coach, as a molder of young men, and as a person,” Alabama athletic director Bill Battle said in a statement. “Anthony is a man of impeccable character who has been an excellent representative of our program. He has made tremendous contributions to our program and we always will be grateful for his efforts. Anthony, his wife Chris, and their children have been tremendous assets to our University and our community.

“In this business we are ultimately judged by wins and losses on the court and, for a variety of reasons, we haven’t made satisfactory progress in that area.”

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Kentucky routs Arkansas for SEC tourney title

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — No. 1-ranked Kentucky will take a perfect 34-0 record into the NCAA Tournament this week after thrashing Arkansas 78-63 in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game Sunday at Bridgestone Arena.

The conference tournament title is the 28th for Kentucky, meaning the Wildcats have won more than half of the 55 tournaments.

“This team has a lot of dog in it,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Good, hard fought game. Arkansas is a ranked team, but we kind of did our thing.”

Junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who was named tournament MVP, paced Kentucky with a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds. It was his first double-double since the Columbia game on Dec. 10.

Cauley-Stein was joined on the all-tournament team by twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison of Kentucky, Michael Qualls of Arkansas and K.T. Harrell of Auburn.

Andrew Harrison, a sophomore guard, scored 15 points. Twin brother Aaron Harrison had 11 points and six assists. Freshman guard Tyler Ulis added eight points and six assists.

Guard Michael Qualls topped No. 21 Arkansas (26-8) with 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Forward Bobby Portis had 13 points.

“Our guys came out and scratched and clawed,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “But at the end, I thought their depth and size were hard to overcome. If a team is going to beat them, you’ve got to make shots as well as match their energy.”

The finals pitted the top two seeds in Kentucky and Arkansas, but the Wildcats wasted little time proving that winning the regular season by five games was no fluke. Kentucky roared out to an 8-0 lead within the first two minutes, forcing Anderson to call an early timeout. Point guard Andrew Harrison scored six of the eight on a pair of 3-pointers.

“If the other team is angry, mad, hateful, jealous, the physiology of that is real close to fear,” Calipari said. “When a team comes in that way, if you can just play and that thing turns into fear, you separate yourself. Joy, the love of playing, always beats angry, mean, hateful, jealous.”

Arkansas managed to score five unanswered points after the break and eventually tied the game at 10-10 on a 3-pointer by Portis. The SEC player of the year had missed 16 of his previous 17 shots in the tournament before the basket.

The game was tied 19-19 with 10:18 to play in the first half when Kentucky caught fire, scoring 16 points in 5:05 for a 35-23 lead. Aaron Harrison scored six points during the 16-4 run on a pair of 3-pointers. He also assisted on two dunks by Cauley-Stein and a basket in the paint by sophomore center Dakari Johnson. Freshman center Karl-Anthony Towns accounted for the remaining four points.

All six Kentucky field goals during the run were accompanied by an assist, including three by Aaron Harrison. At the time, Kentucky was shooting 59 percent (13 of 22), including 5 of 6 on three-pointers.

Kentucky went on to expand the lead to 16 points by halftime, 41-25, meaning the Wildcats outscored Arkansas 22-6 over the final 10:18 of the first half.

Cauley-Stein led the way in the first half with eight points and eight rebounds. Aaron Harrison added eight points and six assists. Andrew Harrison scored six points.

Kentucky shots 51.9 percent in the first half, and 12 of the 14 baskets came via assists. The Wildcats were 8-for-8 from the free-throw line.

Arkansas, which never led, shot just 29 percent in the first half. Portis topped the Razorbacks with seven points. Arkansas had just two assists and five turnovers in the first 20 minutes.

In the second half, Arkansas managed to trim Kentucky’s lead from 16 to nine at 48-39 at the 11:55 mark. During that time, Towns picked up his fourth personal foul with 14:07 to play.

“We cut it to nine points in the second half, but we couldn’t get over the hump,” Anderson said.

From that point forward the two teams battled mostly to a draw before Kentucky pulled away late in the half.

Kentucky pushed the lead back 18 points at 6:10 thanks to an 11-2 run.

Kentucky’s largest lead of the game was 21 points, which came with 2:41 to play.

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