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Florida 61, Mississippi State 59: Gators hit threes, hold on for road triumph

The Gators’ offense found rhythm early and a spurt late.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Mississippi State Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

When Florida led Mississippi State by 16 in the first half on Saturday night, it looked like the Gators might get a rare comfortable win in SEC play.

And even after they conceded all of that lead, a late run gave them control again.

But it was only in the final minute and on the game’s final possession that Florida pulled out a 61-59 win over the Bulldogs — and only with a last bit of good defense and a good bit of good fortune.

Multiple Mississippi State players had chances to hit game-tying shots inside the arc with seconds to go, but Colin Castleton helped bother those shots into missing, and Cameron Matthews throwing a pass to no one with 43 seconds to go short-circuited the first MSU attempt to tie. Good thing, too, as Florida’s final offensive possessions were close to indefensible: Castleton took a jumper late in the clock with just over a minute to go, and Riley Kugel had to call for the ball and heave a bad three to avert a shot-clock violation midway through the final minute.

Kugel, to be fair, earned late-clock bailout rights earlier in the game by hurling in a 35-foot three at the end of a possession earlier in the half, and scored eight points off the bench for the Gators. But in a game in which Florida built a 33-17 advantage while sinking five threes — and ultimately made 10 of their 24 shots from deep — too many possessions getting disrupted allowed Mississippi State to stave off an even bigger hole and dig back to even.

That Kugel heave? It was Florida’s lone field goal for about eight minutes spanning the first and second half, and in that time, the Bulldogs chewed up almost all of the Gators’ lead. And he, Castleton, Kyle Lofton, and Kowacie Reeves all had at least five more misses than makes on the evening, though all of them but Lofton — who added eight rebounds and six assists to his scoring — made at least one three, with Castleton draining a rare one early on.

Will Richard — 4-for-5 from three for all of his 12 points — was Florida’s most efficient scorer, but only took six shots on the night, and while Castleton’s 13 points led all Gators, his second half was quiet apart from two buckets in a 9-2 run to take back control of the game. Without any player knocking down enough shots for Florida to pull away — just ones that built what could have been the foundation for such a move, like a Reeves three to get it to 60-50 late — the Bulldogs had time and opportunity to keep the pressure on, and got a huge lift from Dashawn Davis draining three big second-half threes, including the one to cut Florida’s lead to two with 1:28 on the clock, applied more.

Still, Florida’s defense answered the bell often enough — Mississippi State shot 39 percent from the field and 24 percent from three, a tick under its woeful seasonal average of 25 percent — to emerge from this bout with a hard-earned win.

It seems unlikely that this one will be remembered fondly for more than minutes after the flight back from Starkville — but it goes down as a result far better than a full collapse could have wrought.