While the vast majority of the nation’s attention is centered on a football game in New Orleans, there was no doubt the O’Connell Center was the place to be in Gainesville on Saturday evening.
In front a sold out crowd announced at 12,522, the Gators defeated the visiting Ole Miss Rebels 78-64.
If Ole Miss is the second-best team in the SEC, it appears that Florida may not have a close challenger.
Unlike the last sold-out affair when the Gators had the Missouri Tigers seemingly on the ropes from tip-off, Florida found itself in a different position on Saturday night as it faced off against a Rebels’ squad with something to prove against the conference’s best team.
The Gators may have ended the first half with a double-digit lead, but there was little doubt amongst everyone in attendance that Florida would be fending off Rebels’ runs the rest of the evening. The Gators started off the game by scoring 5 quick points on a Patric Young jumper and Kenny Boynton three-pointer, but the Rebels quickly countered with a jumper by senior forward Murphy Holloway and a three-pointer by the SEC’s biggest self-made villain, junior guard Marshall Henderson.
Henderson was greeted warmly by the O’Connell Center crowd during introductions, as fans from ages seven to 70 emphatically booed the native-Texan. Henderson’s every move throughout the game was met with some sort of reaction from the Florida crowd, but if he was at all rattled, the SEC’s leading scorer didn’t show it. He poured in 12 points for the Rebels in the first half and finished with 25.
Florida was the beneficiary of hot shooting to begin the game, namely by senior forward Erik Murphy, who knocked down three three-pointers on four attempts.
The Gators have a habit of making late first-half runs to practically put the game out of reach in the early going, but it was the Rebels who put the Gators on their heels during the stretch run of the first half as Ole Miss went on a 10-0 run that lasted until nearly the one-minute mark.
After a Florida timeout, the Gators quickly struck with a Murphy jumper almost immediately out of the huddle and then a Scottie Wilbekin shot as the buzzer sounded to put the Gators up 13 points, essentially denying the Rebels a chance to go into the locker room with momentum.
Although the Rebels were the recipients of friendly whistles by the officiating crew, coach Andy Kennedy’s team could never get themselves into the game in the second half as the Gators continued to apply pressure on both ends of the floor.
The discrepancy in called fouls was a major point of contention for Donovan, who irately called a timeout to give head official Tony Greene a piece of his mind. However, despite the double-digit difference in free throw attempts, Ole Miss could never close the gap on the emotionally charged Gators, who appeared to feed off the frenzied crowd for much of the night.
Although fans were able to stay until the final buzzer sounded, the flat truth is the game was over shortly after halftime. Ole Miss’ Henderson lived up to his scoring reputation with his 25 points, but he was one of only two Rebels players to score in double figures.
The Gators, however, enjoyed much better balance in scoring as four starters finished in double digits. Murphy led the Florida charge with 19 points and Mike Rosario added 14. Both Wilbekin and Young each had 13.
The Gators finished 51.6 percent from the field on 32 of 62 shooting. Florida will next head to Fayetteville to take on Arkansas on Tuesday.