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
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