STARKVILLE, MS — It was the perfect setting for an upset the likes of which the Mississippi State crowd had never seen. The number one ranked Florida Gators were in town, the first number one ranked team to visit Starkville since Kentucky in 1978, and Humphrey Coliseum is an arena where the Gators have had their share of struggles over the years.
With The Hump packed to the rafters with an amped up crowd on “White Out Night,” all the ingredients were in place to hand the Gators their first SEC loss and end their 10-game winning streak.
The only problem is the Gators didn’t cooperate.
Oh, Florida kicked the ball around way too many times and the Gators blew several chances to put the Bulldogs away, but in the end, Florida’s experience paid off. Junior point guard Taurean Green’s three free throws in the final 21 seconds lifted the Gators to a 70-67 great escape before a crowd of 10,300.
The win improved Florida to 18-2 overall, 5-0 in the Southeastern Conference. With Kentucky’s overtime loss to Georgia Wednesday night, the Gators now have a two-game cushion in the SEC’s East Division. Mississippi State dropped to 11-7 overall, 2-3 in the SEC.
It was two free throws by Green with 3.1 seconds to go that provided the final margin for Florida, the nation’s top shooting team going into the game. The Gators, shooting 54.7 percent from the field going into the game, suffered their worst shooting night of the season, hitting 20-49 from the field (40.8 percent).
The only thing that saved the Gators was the foul line and even that was an adventure. The Gators outscored Mississippi State by 10 points from the foul line but their 23-34 performance had just enough misses to let Mississippi State hang around until the bitter end.
The Gators got to the foul line a lot because Mississippi State’s under-sized Bulldogs elected to play Florida physical, strategy that had their front line in foul trouble early in the second half. A little over two minutes into the half, the Gators got 6-9 Vernon Goodridge to foul out. Forward Dietric Slater fouled out late in the game and 6-8 Charles Rhodes and 6-9 Jarvis Varnado ended the game with four fouls each.
The get physical style worked in getting the Gators out of synch offensively and it showed in a first half that saw Florida score 10 points in the first 10 minutes. Between Florida miscues, tough physical defense from the Bulldogs and some hot three-point shooting, State bolted to a 19-11 lead midway through the half. The Bulldogs hit five of their first eight three-point attempts but they cooled down considerably after that. In the final 30 minutes of the game, Mississippi State was 3-17 from the three-point line.
The Gators got within one, 28-27, on a pair of free throws by Joakim Noah with 2:17 left in the half but the Bulldogs closed hard to take a 33-29 lead at intermission.
The Bulldogs scored the first four points of the second half and looked like they were taking up where they left off but the Gators started getting their offensive game together by getting to the foul line. Six of Florida’s first eight points of the second half came from the foul line. A pair of free throws by Corey Brewer with 15:02 remaining in the game gave the Gators their first lead (39-38) since the 13:13 mark in the first half.
Mississippi State scored the next five points to go back ahead, 43-39, but that was the last time the Bulldogs would lead. Florida went on an 11-0 run, highlighted the first points of the game from Lee Humphrey. Humphrey, held without a first half shot, scored eight second half points. His three-pointer with 10:53 left in the game extended Florida’s lead to 50-43.
Humphrey hit another three-pointer with 9:13 remaining to end a spectacular play. With the Gators leading 50-45, Al Horford ran down a rebound on the sideline, put the ball on the floor and made a perfect cross court pass to Humphrey on the right wing. Humphrey buried the three.
Over the next three minutes, the Gators had some chances to put real distance between them and the Bulldogs but missed free throws and missed chippies in the paint let Mississippi State hang around. Florida led, 62-53, when the Bulldogs made a last push to get back in the game.
JaMont Gordon, silenced since a great start, scored his first points of the second half on a spectacular drive in which he dunked after a jump stop with 6:09 left. That brought the crowd to its feet and energized the Bulldogs who scored the next seven points to tied the game at 62 on a pair of Charles Rhodes foul shots.
Florida answered with a three from the corner by Green with 3:45 left and Noah tipped in his own miss with 2:37 left to give the Gators a five-point cushion. State cut the lead to two, 67-65, on a free throw by Slater and a layup by Rhodes with 41 seconds remaining.
Slater fouled out and sent Green to the line with 21 seconds left but Florida’s usually reliable point guard missed the first of his two free throws and the Gators held a precarious, 68-65 lead. After a time out, Mississippi State needed a lot of time to get a shot off. Gordon scored with 4.1 seconds remaining to cut Florida’s lead to a single point but Green was fouled on the inbounds play. This time Green didn’t miss, hitting both shots to seal the win.
Brewer led Florida with 20 points while Green scored 11 and Noah added 10. Horford had nine points and 14 rebounds. Chris Richard added nine points off the bench.
Florida will hit the road again Saturday when the Gators go to Auburn, an upset winner over 12th-ranked Alabama Tuesday night.