With just over 15 minutes remaining on Tuesday night in the O'Connell Center, Florida trailed Mississippi State, the SEC's only team without a win in conference play, by 11. The Gators had looked listless, and only hot shooting in the first half had kept the game from being even more lopsided.
That's when Florida started to respond, though — and despite a fantastic fight by the Bulldogs, the Gators' rally did just enough to edge Mississippi State, 81-78.
Florida's answer to that 11-point deficit was an extended 26-9 run, one that was taken over by Dorian Finney-Smith when the Gators needed a push past the Bulldogs. The Gators' senior leader's personal 6-0 burst within that run turned a one-point deficit into a five-point lead, and was a snapshot of his steadying effect all night, as he recorded a third consecutive double-double with 20 points and 13 rebounds.
And Florida needed consistency on a night when so many other things were more intermittent. KeVaughn Allen had 19 points, but disappeared for stretches on offense, and made a number of iffy plays. John Egbunu had 16 points, but half of them came at the line, including four crucial free throws that gave the Gators the lead twice in the final minute. Devin Robinson had 11 points about as quietly as anyone can. With Florida's two-headed point guard combination of Chris Chiozza and Kasey Hill combining for nine assists and five turnovers, and just seven points on 13 shots, everyone else needed to step up — and generally did.
That was true for Mississippi State, too, though: Gavin Ware managed just five points and one rebound before going out with five fouls, and his four fellow starters all scored in double figures to pick up the slack, with Craig Sword scoring 11 of his 17 points in the final 5:23 of play and I.J. Ready scoring 20 points for just the second time this season. The Bulldogs gave Florida all they had.
It wasn't enough, because the Gators, who didn't have their finest form on this night, still played their best ball for at least part of this game. Though there's plenty left to clean up, the picture of Florida coming into focus suggests they can contend in the SEC — so long as they're at their best more than their worst.