True to form, the 2022-23 Florida Gators put together a valiant effort against an evenly-matched team in the 2023 SEC Tournament on Thursday.
Equally true to form, that effort came in a game they lost.
Mississippi State’s Tolu Smith scored a career-high 28 points and dumped in the game-winning lay-up with 4.3 seconds to go in overtime, carrying the Bulldogs to a 69-68 win over a Florida team that scraped itself off the court at several junctures and scrapped until the end.
The first rise came after a mostly dreadful first half of offense in which Florida made six of its first 10 shots and then went cold enough to be lucky to trail by just 10 at halftime. But after trailing 26-17 with 10 minutes to go in the half, Florida only gave up 10 more points — and just five over the period’s final six minutes — and that defense carried over into the second half, as the Gators went on a 18-5 run to take a 44-41 lead.
Smith would be the Bulldogs’ constant, though, and his pounding efforts in the paint plus Mississippi State’s whopping 21 offensive rebounds rebuilt small leads that Florida had to fight back to erase. With 1:55 to play, Smith put the Bulldogs up six, leaving the Gators in dire straits.
In that moment, it was Myreon Jones who found his cape. The super senior, who has adjusted his game from spraying — and often missing — threes in 2021-22 to playing stout defense and serving as an auxiliary point guard this year, knocked down two signature ceiling-scraping threes on back-to-back possessions to tie the game, and barely missed a potential game-winner at the end of regulation.
In overtime, Florida’s hole came from a three-point play by — who else? — Smith and a thunderous oop by Shawn Jones Jr.
But this time, it was Riley Kugel tying the cape around his neck and Florida’s fortunes to his own. With Florida down six in the final minute, Kugel sank his second three — on eight attempts — on the day to halve the lead, forced a steal that turned into him making two free throws on a run-out that saw his lay-up attempt get wedged between hoop and backboard, then forced another steal that generated a go-ahead bucket for Niels Lane with 12 seconds to go.
When Mississippi State needed a make most, though, the Bulldogs turned again to Smith, who pump-faked to create space for his game-winner down low.
Florida hardly deserved to win this game, given its failures on the defensive glass and from both distance (8-for-35) and the foul line (10-for-17). But the Gators made sure Mississippi State barely did, either, limiting the Bulldogs to 2-for-14 shooting from three, forcing 20 turnovers, and not allowing any Bulldog who took more than one shot to shoot better than 50 percent from the field.
Without Colin Castleton, it was a tremendous effort — but a doomed one.
And that just makes Florida not being able to combine its superstar and its superlative efforts often enough this year even more bittersweet.