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Ole Miss 70, Florida 54: Gators go cold, can’t quell Rebels in road loss

Horrific shooting and defensive struggles spelled doom for a short-handed Gators team.

NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Florida Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators did well to start their road game at Ole Miss on Monday night without falling into the sort of hole that had proven too deep to climb out of in previous SEC road games. And in the early going, they responded well to Ole Miss coming out of halftime scalding, too.

But the short-handed Gators kept clanging their threes and could not stop Ole Miss drives — and those elements turned out to be lethal in a dispiriting 70-54 loss.

Playing without Colin Castleton for the third straight game, Florida kept its defensive intensity high for the first half, holding the Rebels to the same 22 points that they got. But after getting out to a 19-12 lead with 8:18 to play in a plodding half in which neither team got fully untracked, the Gators scored just three more points before halftime, and slowly let Daeshun Ruffin’s relentless penetration get the Rebels back even by intermission.

And though Jason Jitoboh nearly matched a 8-0 Ole Miss run with a 6-0 one of his own just after the break, that offensive efficiency was short-lived for the Gators, who simply could not keep up as the Rebels pulled away to their final margin of victory.

Truly terrible shooting from distance — a 4-for-29 night that ranks as the season’s worst — had plenty to do with the offensive problems, but no one outside of Jitoboh (whose 12 points came on perfect 6-for-6 shooting) got untracked for Florida, with Anthony Duruji’s 11 points coming sporadically after he spent much of the first half on the bench with two fouls.

Tyree Appleby, too, spent part of the first half benched, but spent most of his moments on the floor after a couple of early threes failing to help the Gators, as he had four turnovers to match his four assists and needed eight shots — all threes — for his 11 points.

Appleby’s 3-for-8 night wasn’t great by his streaky standards, but it was certainly better than the 1-for-21 performance the rest of the Gators mustered, with Phlandrous Fleming being the only other Gator to sink a three. And all five others who shot a three — Duruji, Kowacie Reeves, Brandon McKissic, Elijah Kennedy, and Myreon Jones — missed at least two on the night.

Florida missed Castleton — and C.J. Felder, whose shooting and defense off the bench would’ve been major assets in this game — deeply in this loss, as Ruffin (21 points, six assists) vivisected the Gators by driving and either scoring or dishing to Matt Murrell (20 points, 3-for-6 on threes) and Nysier Brooks (11 points) essentially matched Jitoboh’s production.

But it had also beaten Mississippi State and Vanderbilt just days ago without Castleton and without a true star turn from Felder — it’s just that the shooting that helped beat the Bulldogs and the defense that stifled the Commodores didn’t make it to Oxford.

With Florida’s next leg of its midweek road trip presenting a much more daunting challenge — a showdown with Tennessee on Rocky Top — the Gators had better hope they figure out how to get back what they had just a week ago in the next 48 hours.