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Mississippi State 78, Florida 71: Gators cough up lead, collapse in second half

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Florida started the night hot. Mississippi State finished it scorching — and left the Gators smoked.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators came out sizzling against the Mississippi State Bulldogs on Tuesday night, with Scottie Lewis lighting the Bulldogs up for 10 points in minutes and shots falling leading to a 15-point lead with under eight minutes to play in the first half.

Then the Bulldogs got hotter as Florida went cold — and things stayed like that until triple zeroes showed, with Florida owning an embarrassing collapse at home and a 78-71 loss that tilts the rest of its season toward must-win contests.

The Gators got 17 points from Lewis, who showed as much explosiveness as a scorer as he has all season, 13 points from Kerry Blackshear, and 10 points each from Keyontae Johnson and Andrew Nembhard. But Lewis slowed down after his scalding start, and Blackshear, Johnson, and Nembhard required 30 shots to get their 43 points, with Blackshear and Johnson both sitting for stretches thanks to foul trouble and Nembhard looking off for much of the second half after turning his ankle late in the first.

And Florida could not stop Reggie Perry — 27 points, eight rebounds — apart from forcing his seven turnovers, and could not stop Mississippi State at all after halftime, as the Bulldogs shot 61 percent from the floor, made three of their five threes, and sank 12 of their 14 free throws. A 9-0 run in the second segment of the half erased all of Florida’s lead, and the Gators mustered just one basket in nearly five minutes after a Tyson Carter three gave the Bulldogs the lead — a Johnson floater that Mississippi State immediately answered with a Perry three that was set up by some physical screening of Johnson.

That three put the Bulldogs up six; Florida would not get closer than four down the stretch, as Mike White tried presses and all manner of offense-defense substitutions in a vain attempt to get stops. Carter (12 points) and Robert Woodard (16 points on seven shots) made sure those stops would be few and far between in the second half, though, scoring on drives and draining threes.

And while Mississippi State was mostly held in check on the offensive glass, nabbing just nine offensive boards all night — a small sum for a team that captures about 40 percent of its misses — four of those came in the final four minutes of play, helping the Bulldogs cap their comeback.

This loss is brutally damaging to Florida’s hopes of playing in the NCAA Tournament this year, as it comes to a team that was closer to the bubble than the Gators were coming in, and thus helps a competitor and hurts the Gators’ own team sheet. The Gators’ schedule does lighten up for the better part of the next three weeks, but failing to close the door on a good team at home on this night cost them a better win than will be on offer in their next five contests — and, by the same token, makes avoiding the bad losses that will be available all the more important.

Once more, Florida played well enough for long enough to entertain thoughts of winning a game and getting to breathe briefly without the crushing weights of expectations and disappointment related to failure to match them on the court.

But the Gators cannot seem to figure out how to make those thoughts and dreams of success a reality with any consistency — and it isn’t a matter of time that they will.