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Florida 57, Mississippi State 52: Gators stand tall down stretch in Starkville

Florida had every opportunity to lose on a brutally difficult day on the road. And it didn’t.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

This one, of all of them, was the close one.

This game featured the Mississippi State Bulldogs erasing all of the Florida Gators men’s basketball team’s 12-point lead in the second half to tie things up in the waning minutes, and another injury to a key Florida contributor, and the best and worst of Kasey Hill, and a bizarre line from Devin Robinson, and intermittent cape-donning from KeVaughn Allen and Chris Chiozza and Kevarrius Hayes.

It was also a 57-52 win for the Gators, their eighth straight, and one that served as a reminder that a team that had found its best game over the last several weeks can win without being at full bore.

The Gators were not there on this Saturday, not after a miserable start that would have seen Mississippi State up by double digits had the Bulldogs made anything from distance early on. Allen scored 11 points in the first half — and in the game. Chiozza scored 14 to lead all Gators — and none after the 15:16 mark of the second half.

Florida scored just 12 points in the final 12:07 on this day, after taking a 45-33 lead.

Still, Florida won. And it won because of dirty work, especially on defense.

Robinson’s 10 rebounds in a scoreless showing were immensely helpful in the first game of John Egbunu’s permanent absence. So were Hayes’s 10, and his nine points and four blocks, in a showing that made good on some of the potential for him to step up without Egbunu around. Canyon Barry’s seven points were all big, even though he was quiet for much of the day, and rolled his left ankle late.

And Hill had nine points — not enough to offset his six turnovers and make his performance a good one in most fans’ eyes, no, but the most by any Gator in the second half. He scored the 1,000th point of his career on a free throw to put Florida up four in the final minute, emblematic of how the Gators stepped up when necessary to step off the court with a victory.

But he also missed the free throw that came immediately after his make, showing just how frustratingly poorly this team played in this win.

With this win in the books, Florida can be relieved of the worry that it would completely forget how to play in the wake of Egbunu’s injury.

With a week of the (other) toughest teams in the SEC before them, the Gators ought to know that this sort of effort probably won’t extend their winning streak any further.