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Mississippi State 72, Florida 69: Gators bullied, not buried, by bigger Bulldogs

The bigger, stronger Bulldogs mauled the Gators inside in Starkville. But Florida still threw a scare into them.

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

Florida’s Saturday matinee with Mississippi State began as a rock fight. It turned into the big Bulldogs pounding the Gators inside.

But try as they might, the Bulldogs could only bully — not bury — the Gators, taking a 72-69 win despite Tre Mann having a shot to tie at the buzzer.

Mann’s three wasn’t a good shot, just a prayer released over a contest by the 6’7” Anderson Garcia, but that Florida even had a chance to tie was miraculous in itself. The Gators trailed for the entire second half, and by as many as 11 points; entering the final minute, they were down 10.

But Mann and Colin Castleton took over for that stretch, scoring nine points on four buckets and an and-one by Mann, who also had a steal in the span. And D.J. Stewart missing a layup gave Florida an opportunity to take a tying three with under 10 seconds to play, but Noah Locke couldn’t get free and Mann dribbled himself into being guarded before launching the last of the Gators’ 19 threes on the day.

If it had become just their sixth make, the Gators would have gone to overtime having rewritten the story of the game in the blink of an eye.

Instead, that tale remained what it was likely to be from the moment Mississippi State began the second half on an 8-0 run: A Bulldogs frontcourt too big and strong for Florida’s limited roster feasted, and Florida couldn’t compensate with pressure or precision shooting.

Tolu Smith had 27 points and 14 rebounds to lead all scorers and rebounders on a monster day, and Abdul Ado added 11 points and nine boards and matched Smith with three blocks, as the Bulldogs dumped the ball into the paint and profited time and again. 15 offensive rebounds — 10 by Smith and Ado — helped, as Florida failed to give Colin Castleton (16 points, seven rebounds, six blocks) any meaningful assistance on the weak side, with Anthony Duruji, Osayi Osifo, Omar Payne, and Samson Ruzhentsev combining for just eight rebounds and one block and Duruji and Payne spending much of their days in foul trouble.

Mississippi State made just one three on eight tries, but shot 54 percent inside the arc and saw Smith and Ado combine to make 16 of 18 attempts.

Florida, meanwhile, shot 41 percent from the field; only the Gators’ excellence at the line, where they made 14 of 16 free throws, spared them long scoreless droughts in the second half, as they failed for long stretches to record a field goal.

And yet, with Keyontae Johnson and Scottie Lewis — each assuredly among the options at power forward for Mike White if available — out on the day and Castleton briefly unavailable down the stretch due to what looked like a serious ankle sprain, Florida never let the Bulldogs run away, and kept them close enough to make a sprint to the finish.

It wasn’t enough, and Florida’s season increasingly feels like it will bear that as an epitaph.

But what more the Gators are actually capable of doing is hard to scry.