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Casey Prather scored a team-high 16 points in Florida's 62-51 win at Mississippi State on Thursday. (Photo: Vanessa Niblett)

Friday January 31, 2014Second-Half Surge Good Enough for Another SEC Road Win

Casey Prather scored a team-high 16 points in Florida's 62-51 win at Mississippi State on Thursday. (Photo: Vanessa Niblett)

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- The message in the locker room was clear, but it was also obvious. To a man, the Florida Gators knew what the problem was Thursday night at Humphrey Coliseum.

“They were playing harder than we were,” Scottie Wilbekin said.

Mississippi State was at home, where the Bulldogs are a far more stubborn and competitive team. The Florida Gators got a taste of that hard-headedness when the home squad stared down a nine-point defict against the Southeastern Conference frontrunners by scoring eight straight points to end the first half, seize momentum and remind the Gators they were there to play a game.

“Yeah, I rung ‘em up at halftime,” UF coach Billy Donovan. “But I rung ‘em up before the game, too, because they had a really bad warm-up.”

So after things got a little heated in the locker room, the Gators returned to the floor and ignited a second-half spark that was good enough to put a 62-51 victory in the books and stay perfect in Southeastern Conference play.

Senior forward Casey Prather scored 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds, while senior center Patric Young fought off first-half foul trouble to post his way to 12 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots. Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin had a season-high eight assists. Sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith had nine rebounds and sophomore shooting guard Michael Frazier II started really bad with his shot from deep, only to finish really good.

“A win is a win, especially on the road,” Wilbekin said after going just 2-for-9 from the floor, but helping the Gators double up the Bulldogs (14-7) in assists. “It wasn’t pretty, but we got the win. What else matters?”

Actually, nothing.

UF’s 12th straight victory (and fourth on the road in the league) kept the Gators (18-2, 7-0) as the lone unbeaten SEC team and increased their lead in the conference to two games over Kentucky and Ole Miss.

No Gator was great, but collectively the team put together a crisper second half of 56-percent shooting and a 20-12 rebounding margin that covered up an otherwise bad night from the 3-point line (30 percent) and horrific one from the free-throw line (8-for-18 and 46.2 percent).

The game had a similar blueprint to the SEC roadies Florida slogged through at Auburn and Alabama recently. Like those games, the Gators pounded away and eventually got the result they sought. Though hardly the way they sought it.

“We came out with more focus, played harder and were better connected and more determined,” Young said of the second half. “We can't control the ball going in the basket, but we can control our energy on the defensive end of the floor."

Against the Bulldogs (13-7, 3-4) that meant denying dribble penetration -- and not letting guard Craig Sword (12 points, 1 assist) dictate offense -- and preventing them not only from finding rhythm from long distance but not allowing their ball-hawking defense (8.8 steals per game) to create turnovers and get out in transition.

MSU started the night averaging 80 points a game at “The Hump” against SEC opponents and were shooting an astounding 39 free throws per game. Against UF, the Bulldogs had their season-low total in points, sank just four 3s in 14 tries and -- get this -- attempted a measly six free throws.

Of the latter, they made one.

"Offensively we had our problems," Bulldogs coach Rick Ray said. "I thought we had a plethora of opportunities in the first half to finish at the rim that we just didn't get done."

Florida appeared on the verge of opening up the game, up nine after backup Jacob Kurtz hit one of two free throws with 5:29 to go in the first half.

The Gators did not score again.

“I thought the lead was kind of fraudulent anyway,” Donovan said. “They had missed a lot of easy shots and then we got a truckload of really good looks [from 3] for Frazier and Wilbekin to close out the half -- and we missed them all.”

UF bounced its last seven shots of the half, while MSU ran off eight straight points to end the period and cut the Florida lead to just one, taking all the momentum into intermission.

“They wanted it more than we did,” Frazier said.

That’s how Donovan saw it. He sent his team back on the floor with the challenge to prove that wasn’t the case.

“As a coach, there are certain things that you can see that show a lack of mental focus; a lack of intensity and desperation,” Donovan said. “The free throws? That’s just a microcosm of what I’m talking about -- a lack of focus. You can’t go 18-for-24 one game and then do that [8-for-19 Thursday] if you’re focused.”

The overall picture tightened up in the second half. Mississippi State scored two of the period's first three buckets and twice led by a point, but a re-energized Young scored back-to-back baskets, the second on a thundering slam off his own miss, to give the Gators a lead and start a 13-2 run that lasted the next six-plus minutes.

Young had six points in the burst, freshman guard Kasey Hill hit a bank shot in transition, Finney-Smith sank a baseline jumper and Prather threw in three points.

Just like, a one-point deficit became a 10-point lead. Only once did the Bulldogs trim the margin to as little as eight. After starting 0-for-6 from long distance, Frazier banged in his final 3-point tries to squelch any hopes of a comeback. His last one came with 2:31 to go, the shot clock winding down, and MSU on the verge of a stop and trailing by nine.

“When he’s open, I want him to shoot it,” Donovan said. “He has about as much guilt when he misses a shot as any player I’ve ever coached. It internally affects him in a negative way and he’s got to move past that. I thought in the second half, he made a couple big 3s for us that really stretched our lead out.”

They were key, but not as much as UF’s overall mentality in the second half.

Makes you wonder where it was in the first? Definitely made their coach wonder. 

“Down the road, that can come back and bite us,” Frazier said. “If a team as talented as us plays like it wants the game that much more than us, we'll be down 20 at the half. But we held it together this time.”

Maybe dealing with it this time will help avoid a next time.

Donovan hopes so.


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