At halftime, with Mississippi playing its game and Marshall Henderson making his shots, it was clear that it would take another decision in a 12-round fight for Florida to lay its claim to the No. 1 spot in college basketball, and the figurative belt that comes with it.
At the end of the game, Henderson was silenced, and the Gators, beaten and bloodied, were on top, taking that 75-71 decision in the roughest road game left on their schedule.
Scottie Wilbekin had 18 points and seven assists, and played fantastic defense on Henderson all day, earning the showy Gator Chomp he gave to Henderson and the crowd at game's end.
Michael Frazier II matched Henderson's five threes and had 17 points in a fine bounce-back game for him. And Patric Young had 12 points on five shots and shared the team lead with five rebounds, despite being slapped on the bridge of the nose on a dunk in the second half.
This was a battle and a duel in one — and the Gators won it.
Henderson had 22 points in the first half, using his dazzling shot-making skills to keep the Rebels on Florida's heels with fadeaway threes and free throws. Mississippi needed all of them, as Florida made seven of its 10 threes in the first half, and built a 10-point lead at one juncture.
But Wilbekin was never really playing poor defense on Henderson in that first half; it was merely a show put on by college basketball's preeminent showman. And, facing the same defender and similarly intense defense, Henderson had no success as a scorer in the second half, missing all six of his shots.
Jarvis Summers kept the Rebels in it, scoring 14 of his 19 points in the second half, with an assist from Anthony Perez, who had six straight buckets for Ole Miss over one stretch, but Florida never trailed by more than three points in the second half. And after Perez answered a Wilbekin three with a jumper, and the teams traded awful turnovers to go to the under-8:00 timeout tied at 59-59, Florida put together a 7-0 run over the game's next four minutes, and led 66-61 at the under-4:00.
From there, both teams traded buckets, but Florida could afford to do that; after allowing the Rebels to put up 42 points on 32 possessions in the first half, the most the Gators had allowed in any half this season, they clamped down in the first 16 minutes of the second half, allowing just 19 points on the Rebels' first 25 possessions.
Florida survived on this day, to an extent, but the Gators also landed combinations and forced the Rebels to play awkward basketball late, and that was enough to preserve their winning streaks — 19 straight overall, seven straight on the road in the SEC, and six straight without the benefit of the lead at halftime — and distinctions — Florida's 14-0 start in SEC play is its best in school history, and the Gators' 25-2 record is the best any Florida team has ever had.
Barring some kind of otherworldly blowout at Cameron later today that allows Syracuse to retain its No. 1 ranking, Florida will be the nation's No. 1 team on Monday, when the AP and USA TODAY polls roll out. And Florida will deserve that No. 1 ranking, its first since February 2007.
But the Gators — not these Gators, but this program, and this coach — have earned more valuable things than esteem in the past. And these Gators seem determined not to rest until they have them, too.