SEC basketball teams have been beating up on each other over the last few weeks. While almost everyone else was feeling the pain of conference play, the Florida Gators were cruising on a perfect 4-0 start.
The Gators finally got a taste on Saturday as they fell 78-72 on the road to Ole Miss, a team picked to finish near the bottom of the tough conference.
“We’ve gotta approach the Ole Miss game as if it were Duke in the PK80,” said head coach Mike White. “They’re all very, very difficult. And they’re at home as well. It’s the SEC. Every opponent is prepared and every opponent’s got players. We’ve gotta bring that edge. Not that we were flat. I’m not giving you that at all, but Ole Miss had more edge than we did.”
It was a back and forth game that consisted of 13 ties and 11 lead changes before it was all over, but Florida held the lead for a majority of the first half.
While the Gators could never stretch the lead, they went up by as many as seven before Ole Miss took it back on a couple of free throws after a frustration foul from Dontay Bassett.
The Rebels had a chance to burn most of the remaining clock in the half off as they had possession and a three-point lead with 35 seconds to go in the half. Instead, they opted for a layup attempt, which they missed, with 27 seconds still on the clock.
Egor Koulechov missed a three-pointer on the other end, but got the shot off with enough time remaining for KeVaughn Allen to grab the offensive rebound and drain an off balanced three-pointer at the buzzer to tie it at 31.
After a couple lead changes to start the second half, the Gators used back-to-back three-pointers from Keith Stone and Mike Okauru to catapult to their biggest lead of the game. Florida led 52-44 with 12:53 remaining and seemed to have all the momentum.
That was until Ole Miss called a timeout to regroup and took it all back.
The Rebels answered with back-to-back threes of their own out of timeout. The layup after that made it an 8-0 Ole Miss run in less than two minutes and a game tied at 52 all.
Florida briefly took the lead again with a couple more three-pointers from Stone and Jalen Hudson, but went ice cold from there.
From 7:49 remaining, the Gators went just 2-for-13 from the field and were only able to keep things close because of free throws.
Chris Chiozza did what he does and gave his team several opportunities to get back in it, but Florida just couldn’t take advantage.
Ole Miss led 70-65 with 3:45 left in the game when Chiozza came up with a huge steal and gave it to Keith Stone to finish off at the other end. He didn’t exactly make it that far as he went up for the big finish instead of taking the simple layup with Terence Davis on his tail.
Davis blocked it and it went out of bounds off Stone to give the Rebels the ball back.
The next time, Chiozza decided to do it himself as he made a move to the basket in transition to bring it within three.
He came up with another steal on the Rebels’ following possession and Egor Koulechov had an open look for a three-pointer to tie it, but it didn’t go.
The rest of the half came down to fouls and free throw attempts. While the Gators got to the line for 22 attempts, it couldn’t be overcome by 20 personal fouls in the game that led to a 22-for-26 day from the foul line for Ole Miss.
Stone, who got to the line for 18 attempts in the game, made one of two free throws to cut it to 70-68.
An Egor Koulechov foul and a couple of Ole Miss makes on the other end pushed the defecit back to four with two minutes on the clock.
Then, after a call originally sent Florida’s leading scorer Jalen Hudson to the bench with five fouls, it was reversed and sent him to the line instead. He made both, but the Gators couldn’t stop the Rebels on defense and it was pretty much smooth sailing for them the rest of the way.
“I’ve gotta get my guys to play with more poise when it’s not going in for us,” White said. “We can’t make a lot of those decisions defensively. We can’t foul Ole Miss that many times. They’ve always had teams that understand how to get to the foul line and they always convert at a high level.”
While it’s easy to focus on all the things the Gators did poorly in the second half, and it was a lot, there were a couple of bright spots.
Koulechov finished with a double-double with 11 points and a team-high 11 rebounds.
Stone played well for the fourth consecutive game as he had the best statistical game of his career. He had a career-best 23 points and came in just behind Koulechov with eight boards.
“Keith’s still young in his development,” White said. “He’s a redshirt sophomore. I’m sitting here talking about the things he didn’t do well, and he goes and gets 23 and eight. He’s gonna be a really good player. He’s really working hard lately.”
The loss to Ole Miss is very disappointing, but the Gators’ biggest loss of the game came with 4:25 remaining in the first half.
An already skimpy Florida front court lost yet another player in Gorjok Gak, who took an elbow to the head and went down hard while trying to come up with a rebound. He proceeded to go to the locker room, where he was confirmed to have a concussion.
“Really concerned” White said of the injury. “I don’t know how to practice here the next few days … Chase Johnson’s had a concussion and the symptoms for a couple months now. We just hope Gak responds better to some time off and we can get him back a lot quicker than we’ve gotten Chase back. We are really beat up in the front line. Maybe one of these guys with a knee issue will surprise us and be able to help us here pretty soon.”
Whether that happens or not, the Gators are still down another guy on the interior for the time being, and there is no way John Egbunu or Isaiah Stokes will be back from their knee injuries this week.
Florida will have to learn from this loss and figure something out in a hurry as Arkansas and Kentucky are next up on the schedule.