UF’s NCAA hopes take a big hit

STARKVILLE, MS — Nothing comes easy for these Florida Gators. Two weeks ago they were staring down a trip to the NCAA Tournament but after losing their third straight game Wednesday night, the shadow of the NIT looms very large. In a game the Gators had to win, they came up short against Mississippi State, dropping an 80-71 decision that will force them to have an exceptional Southeastern Conference Tournament to make the big dance.

The loss dropped the Gators to 21-9 overall, 8-7 in the SEC East. The Gators will face Kentucky Saturday in their final regular season game of the year. Because of the loss, the Gators will have to win their final regular season game and get at least two wins in the SEC Tournament if they entertain any hopes of making it to the NCAA Tournament. Mississippi State improved to 18-12, 8-7 in the SEC East, and kept its faint NCAA hopes alive. The Bulldogs have to claim a win over Ole Miss Saturday and then do some damage in the SEC Tournament to have a chance.

This was a night when the Gators got some unexpected help from Georgia, a 90-85 winner over Kentucky. A Florida win coupled with that Kentucky loss would have put the Gators in the driver’s seat for the three seed in the SEC Tournament and would have kept alive their chances to squeeze into second, which would have earned a first day bye. Now the Gators and Kentucky will battle it out for the third and fourth seeds.

There were no answers for Mississippi State, which went inside to 6-9 Jarvis Varnado early on to force the Gators to collapse their defense in an attempt to stop him. Varnado made it look easy, scoring six of Mississippi State’s first nine points and that opened things up for the outside shooters. When the Gators sagged the defense to help out against Varnado, the Bulldogs’ three-point shooters took aim and loaded up.

The Bulldogs knocked down six first half three-pointers, none more important than the one Barry Stewart hit with 2:30 left in the half that stretched Mississippi State’s lead to 38-33. The Gators went 0-4 from the field and turned the ball over once the rest of the way while the Bulldogs tacked on a couple of dunks to stretch the lead out to 42-33.

After digging that first half hole, the Gators desperately needed to come out strong to start the second half, but they gave up a couple of quick baskets to the Bulldogs to fall back 46-34.

Florida scrambled defensively and got the game going up and down, enabling the Gators to cut the Mississippi State lead to 48-44 on a layup by Alex Tyus with 15:15 left. At the 13:17 mark, the Gators had a chance to make it a 53-49 game but Erving Walker missed the free throw that would have capped a spectacular three-point play and that seemed to breathe life back into the Bulldogs.

Mississippi State moved out to a 12-point lead on back-to-back three-pointers by Riley Benock and Ravern Johnson to make it 60-48 and they made it a 16-point game on another Johnson three-ball, this one with 6:31 left that made it 69-53.

The Gators wouldn’t go away, though. Walter Hodge buried a couple of deep threes to lead the Gators on an 18-8 run. When Dan Werner hit a layup with 41 seconds remaining, it was a 77-71 game, but Stewart sealed the win with three free throws while the Gators shot blanks the rest of the way.

Florida was led by Hodge, who joined the 1,000-point club for his Florida career with his 20-point effort. Tyus had 16 points and seven rebounds while Calathes finished with 11 points, five rebound and five assists. Werner finished with 10 points and six rebounds.

The Gators hurt themselves at the foul line, hitting 6-13 on a night when the Bulldogs struggled to go 12-21. Florida shot only 44.6 percent from the field. Mississippi State, which got 15 points from Johnson and 13 points and eight rebounds from Varnado, outrebounded the Gators 33-29.