The deja vu was starting to set in for the Florida Gators in the second half of their game with Mississippi State on Wednesday night. The Bulldogs had taken control of the pace and lead late in the first half, forcing the Gators to chase after halftime — and though they did so, it did not necessarily look like they would manage to take a lead, something they also failed to do in valiant comeback attempts against Auburn and LSU that ended in losses.
But Florida tied this game midway through the half. Things could be different!
And then Mississippi State put together a 8-0 run. So maybe not!
It was the Gators’ next step — or, rather, their finishing flourish — that differentiated this game of deficits, and ultimately made it a win.
From that 61-53 hole, Florida embarked on an extended 24-8 run — with 20-2 and 14-0 stretches — that made this game its own, even without Colin Castleton around to battle the Bulldogs’ bigs. And even though their final minute was not the cleanest in hoops history, the Gators stood tall at the end of it, an 80-72 triumph seized from the hands of another team fighting for stability from the outskirts of the NCAA Tournament serving as a fitting prize.
Anthony Duruji scored a Florida-best 22 points and had five steals to lead the Gators, freshman Kowacie Reeves had his second straight 14-point game, and Tyree Appleby had 17 points, five assists, four rebounds, and just two turnovers off the bench, their combined efforts more than compensating for the absence of Castleton, who sat with a left shoulder injury but still got copious TV time while making his usual assortment of funny faces on the bench in a white hoodie.
Phlandrous Fleming also had 10 points and five assists, his best one coming on a heave from halfcourt that landed in Duruji’s hands after a failure to foul by Mississippi State in the last minute.
And Duruji had the night’s best play, a steal-and-score sequence on which he broke on a bad pass near midcourt, measured his defender beautifully, and absorbed contact before launching a reverse layup that got a favorable bounce before falling.
It was the first part of a three-point play that got Florida’s lead to four, with the eighth free throw make of Duruji’s night finishing it. And that sequence, charity stripe cash-in included, was a microcosm of Florida’s night: After starting somewhat slowly from inside the arc and trailing the Bulldogs by 10 late in the first half, the Gators ended up shooting an excellent 13-of-21 on twos, bested that performance by sinking 10 of 24 threes, and shocked every Florida fan in attendance or watching with a stunning 24-for-30 night at the line that improved the Gators’ free throw shooting percentage on the second by almost an entire point.
It was a night that had enough room for personal half-to-half redemption, too. Jason Jitoboh, maybe more than any other Gator, made a comeback in this game, which he started with three fouls in the first half and a fourth not long into the second and ended with eight points, two blocks, and two clutch free throws after being intentionally fouled with just over a minute to play.
It was not perfect, of course. Mississippi State shot 54 percent from the floor and made 24 of its 37 twos, collected 11 offensive rebounds, and came up with nine steals on Florida’s 12 turnovers. Castleton’s absence was clearly felt inside.
But a Florida team that would have been forgiven by some for losing without Castleton still needed to avoid that loss if at all possible — and it did, with fine nights from players asked to do more to make up for their star teammate’s unavailability proving that those players can step up to challenges.
It remains to be seen if and when Castleton will return; Florida would obviously prefer to have him as close to full health as possible, so sitting him is not out of the question.
This game was a test of the rest of the Gators’ heart, though — and they passed.