Coach Mike White has stressed that his team has played better offensively than defensively recently, and it was on full display in his team’s second-half collapse against Mississippi State on Tuesday.
Midway through the contest, it seemed as if the Gators were in cruise control en route to their fifth conference win.
But an offense that went cold in the second half and a defense that couldn’t stop a nosebleed for much of the night turned the cruising into a tailspin into a head-on collision with the guardrail.
A 16-point lead in the first half was not enough to prevent Florida from snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
The Gators (12-8, 4-3 SEC) were outscored 43-26 and failed to make a three-pointer on seven attempts in the second half in a 78-71 loss to the Bulldogs (13-7, 4-3 SEC). Just 10 days after seemingly righting the ship with a big home upset win against then-No. 4 Auburn, UF has lost three games in a row.
“We were, in the first 20 (minutes) as good as we’ve played probably offensively, downhill in transition, sprinting up and down the court,” White said. “Second half, first five minutes of the second half, I had a pit in my stomach because our level of energy wasn’t close to what it was in the first half, it just wasn’t.
“We’re jogging back in transition, getting dunked on, and they’re scoring on us and we’re walking the ball up the court.”
At first, facing Mississippi State’s defense after doing the basketball equivalent of headbutting a wall over and over against Baylor on Saturday was like going up to bat after warming up with a weighted donut. Shots that weren’t open on Saturday suddenly were, and Florida made the Bulldogs pay early.
Freshman Scottie Lewis quickly converted on four field goals within the first four minutes for 10 of UF’s 12 points. He had a season- and team-high 17 points in the game, while guard Andrew Nembhard and forward Keyontae Johnson both had 10.
Following a made jumper by MSU guard Nick Weatherspoon to make it 9-7 in favor of Florida with 16:37 to go in the first half, the Gators outscored the Bulldogs 22-9 to take a 31-16 lead. UF ended up leading by as much as 16 before going into halftime up 45-35.
Hidden by Florida’s sterling performance behind the arc in the first half, however, was a struggling defense, a continuing trend for this team. MSU shot 48 percent from the field in the first half, and once the threes stopped falling for the Gators, the Bulldogs inched their way back into the contest.
MSU scored on seven of its first 11 shots from the field in the second half and tied the game at 52.
Eventually, Mississippi State pulled away with an offense that couldn’t miss down the stretch. In total, the Bulldogs shot 61 percent from the field in the second half and scored on three of its five attempts from three, while Florida shot enough bricks to build a house.
MSU forward Reggie Perry and guard Tyson Carter did much of the damage in the second half, combining for 22 points. Perry led the Bulldogs with 27 points total, while three others hit double digits. No Florida player scored more than six points in the second half.
“Our level of pride defensively is different than every other team that I’ve had,” White said. “Our numbers are not very pretty, and they’re getting uglier every day and it’s being communicated very clearly.”
The only good news on the horizon for the Gators is that the schedule thins significantly until a showdown with No. 13 Kentucky on the road Feb. 22. Texas A&M is the only opponent that Florida will face in that span that is in the top half of the SEC standings.
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