The Ole Miss Rebels had the 2nd-ranked Florida Gators right where they wanted at halftime. By turning the first half into a track meet, the Rebels were feeling good about their chances to score a signature victory but the track meet turned into a second half walk-a-thon and that tipped the scales in Florida’s favor as the Gators (25-2, 14-0 SEC) won their 19th consecutive game and kept their SEC record unblemished with a 75-71 win at the Tad Smith Coliseum in Oxford.
With Marshall Henderson blowing up for 22 first half points, the Rebels (16-11, 7-7 SEC) battled the Gators to a 42-42 draw at the intermission. Henderson was 5-10 from the 3-point line and was the difference-maker. When he wasn’t knocking down shots he was stretching Florida’s defense and creating seams of opportunity for teammates.
“Henderson made some really, really difficult, tough shots to his credit but there were a couple of times that we did not guard him correctly and do the right things,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said on the Gator Radio Network after the game. “We let him get going. It happened on the first possession. We tried to put some length on him with Casey Prather. I thought with Kasey Hill being out I didn’t want Scottie (Wilbekin) to get in foul trouble or get worn down so I thought we would put some length on him and switch out on him but on the first possession we go on the inside of a screen and we get clipped off and he gets going. He hit the first shot and then all of a sudden the basket gets bigger for him.”
The Rebels were at their best when they had the game going up and down, but that changed in the second half. Offensively, Florida got its half court sets going and was content to work the ball for good shots (the Gators had 19 assists on 24 made shots from the field). Going mostly zone at the defensive end, the Gators were able to choke off Henderson’s opportunities, holding him scoreless in the second half and 0-6 from the 3-point line.
Throughout the game the Gators had problems with the Ole Miss zone, which was designed to cut off inside opportunities and force a 3-point game, which the Rebels felt they could win. In one respect the strategy worked. Ole Miss outscored the Gators, 34-14, in the paint and forced the Gators to launch a season-high 33 shots from the 3-point line. The problem was the Gators hit more shots than the Rebels. Florida went 12-33 (36.4%), hitting seven first half threes and five in the second. Ole Miss, on the other hand, couldn’t match its first half pace. The Rebels were 6-13 on 3-balls at the half, but just 2-12 (16.7%) in the second and one of those was a meaningless shot with two seconds to go and the game already decided.
“We made adjustments in the second half of what we did defensively,” Donovan said. “He [Henderson] still shot the ball but it didn’t go in. Overall, I thought our defense was better. I thought our energy was better and I thought our effort was better in the second half.”
As they have in the last four games, the Gators reached a critical point in the second half and turned it on at both ends of the floor to put the game away. The score was locked at 59-59 with 6:38 to go when Casey Prather lost the ball to Jarvis Summers, but instead of a breakaway, go-ahead layup at the other end, Summers got his pocket picked by Scottie Wilbekin. Wilbekin got the steal and found Patric Young under the basket for the go-ahead dunk. With a 61-59 lead, the Gators never trailed again.
Prather scored on a short jumper to give Florida a 63-59 lead and then three free throws, two in a row by Young with 4:08 to go, made it 66-59. The Rebels got two back on an Aaron Jones layup but Young delivered at the foul line once again with 3:42 to go to make it 68-61. Following a runner in the lane by Jarvis Summers, Michael Frazier came through with a dagger three for the third straight game with 3:10 remaining to give the Gators a 71-63 lead.
Ole Miss chipped away to get it back to a 5-point game with 1:13 to go and had a chance to cut Florida’s lead down to two, but the Rebels missed four straight shots.
“We were up by five points and gave them four straight 3-point shots,” lamented Donovan. “They happened to miss all of them. They make one of them and it’s a one-possession game.”
But the Rebels misfired and Florida walked away with its 14th straight win in the Southeastern Conference. With just four games to go, any combination of one Florida win and one Kentucky loss guarantees the Gators at least a piece of the SEC championship.
While happy with the outcome, it was evident in his post game remarks that Donovan feels the Gators need to start playing with more consistency.
“We’re getting into a little bit of this turning it on, turning it off stuff and we’re going to get caught,” Donovan said, noting that Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said earlier in the week that sooner or later it catches up with you if you don’t go hard for the full 40 minutes. “Right now we’re not putting together, effort-wise, a 40-minute game like we need to.
“Looking forward right now, what kind of habits are we building? What kind of flow are we getting in? What are we creating expectation-wise for us? We’ve been able to kind of get through some of this stuff but there is going to be a game or a night where we’re going to get caught and we’re going to have to get that solved right now.”
The Gators built a 10-point lead in the first half when they hit seven of their first 10 3-point shots, but Ole Miss battled back from a 34-24 deficit to take the lead at 36-35 on a jump shot by Jones with 2:46 to go. Florida managed to fight back to tie the game at 42-42 when Wilbekin hit two free throws with 1.9 seconds remaining.
When the Gators had problems finding the bottom of the basket to start the second half, the Rebels twice built 3-point leads, once at 49-46 on a layup by Dwight Coleby and the second time on a driving shot by Summers with 16:33 to go to make it a 51-48 game. The Rebels got their final lead of the game with 10:33 to go when Anthony Perez hit a bank shot for a 57-56 Ole Miss lead.
With the win, the Gators likely take over the #1 spot in the polls that come out Monday.
GAME NOTES: Wilbekin led Florida with 18 points and seven assists while Frazier, who was 5-10 from the 3-point line, scored 17. Young had 12 points and five rebounds while hitting 4-4 from the foul line … The Gators were 15-19 from the line … Kasey Hill missed his second straight game with a groin injury. In his place, DeVon Walker gave the Gators quality minutes off the bench, scoring seven points and handing out one assist … With his 12 points, Patric Young moved into 37th place on Florida’s all-time scoring list with 1,169 points, passing Al Bonner and Eddie Shannon. He’s one point behind Nick Calathes and five behind Taurean Green … Next up for the Gators is Vanderbilt Tuesday night in Nashville.