Mississippi State redshirt senior forward Will McNair Jr. had the ball with the game on the line. He fought to get past two Florida defenders and found his way under the basket with seconds to go.
Florida graduate student forward Colin Castleton stepped into the paint to contest the shot. The shot missed, and the rebound ended in the hands of graduate student guard Kyle Lofton. UF won by its tightest margin all season.
“I knew they were going to try to drive and attack because that’s what most coaches teach,” Castleton said. “We were all scrambling, and it was a dogfight. The whole game was.”
Florida (11-8, SEC 4-3) defeated the Mississippi State Bulldogs (12-7, SEC 1-6) 61-59 Saturday. The Gators held Mississippi State to 39% shooting. UF held its opponent to less than 40% from the floor for the 10th time in its last 12 games.
The victory over the Bulldogs gave the Gators their 1,500th win in program history.
Bulldogs redshirt senior Tolu Smith went at Castleton in the post immediately after the tip-off. Smith missed his first attempt but put it back in after he grabbed his own offensive rebound.
Castleton answered with a step-back three a few minutes later — Florida’s first points of the game.
The Gators went on an 11-0 run across a span of a minute and a half. Mississippi State head coach Chris Jan called a timeout after the Gators took an early 11-3 lead.
UF went 4-5 from behind the arc in the first four minutes.
The Gators’ ball movement at the top of the key helped players get open looks past the perimeter. They had 10 assists in the first half.
Florida slowed down on offense after five minutes of play; it only made shots from the free-throw line for three minutes. Castleton broke the dry spell with a spin move inside for a layup.
UF’s bench struggled early in the opening half. Florida sophomore guard Kowacie Reeves missed his first four shots in his first five minutes on the court.
Florida senior center Jason Jitoboh gave Castleton some rest midway through the first half. Jitoboh played eight minutes in the half; he averages 9.4 minutes per game.
Jitoboh’s 300-pound frame aided the Gators in the battle under the basket. He allowed only two points and drew an offensive foul in his first two minutes against Smith.
Castleton — who finished with 13 points — came back into the game with nine minutes left until halftime. A mid-range jumper by the 6-foot-11-inch forward started a run of five unanswered points for Florida.
Smith made a shot to stop the run. UF went on a three-minute scoring drought going into the final five minutes before the half.
The Gators’ defense kept the Bulldogs from scoring for three and a half minutes as the half approached its end. Florida took advantage and made six unanswered points.
Sophomore forward Alex Fudge used all of his 7-foot wingspan to deny MSU senior guard Dashawn Davis during Florida’s defensive stand. He rose from the restricted area to get the block. Lofton used the rejection to score a fastbreak layup.
Mississippi State attacked the basket as it scored the final seven points of the half.
Florida led 33-24 at halftime after Mississippi State’s scoring run. It held the Bulldogs to 34% shooting and 0% on five attempts from 3-point range; UF went 5-12 from three.
Sophomore guard Will Richard made three of those 3-pointers in the first half. He led Florida with nine points at the break.
The second half started with a scare for the Gators. Fudge fell to the ground, hit his head, and made his way to the bench in the first minute.
UF executed poorly on offense following the incident. Kugel made a circus shot from more than 30 feet from the basket — Florida’s only points three minutes into the second half.
The Gators held Mississippi State to 2-8 from the floor in the first five minutes of the final half.
UF went on a five-minute scoring drought despite its strong defensive play. It allowed the Bulldogs to score six points in a row to bring MSU within one possession.
Davis knocked down a 3-pointer on the left wing to tie the game at 40.
The Gators went 3-12 from the field and 1-4 from long distance midway through the half.
Reeves hit a 3-pointer to put Florida up 43-40. UF then implemented a full-court press on defense.
The teams traded baskets down the stretch; the game was tied twice after Reeves’ triple. Richard gave UF breathing room and a 50-45 lead after he drained a corner three with eight minutes remaining.
The Gators started clicking from beyond the arc. They scored three 3-pointers in the final 10 minutes of the game.
Florida’s lead grew to 10 points, but it couldn’t finish possessions down the stretch. MSU outscored UF 9-1 across the next three minutes.
The Gators led 61-59 with 43 seconds left. Matthews threw the ball out of bounds with a chance to tie the game. Florida avoided a 10-second violation on the inbound when UF head coach Todd Golden called a timeout.
Florida inbounded the ball, but Kugel missed his 3-point attempt. With 11 seconds left, Mississippi State had one more opportunity to tie or win the game.
Castleton and Kugel double-teamed McNair in the low post, but he got past the Gators. McNair levitated toward the rim but was met by Castleton. The shot missed, and UF earned its 11th win of the season.
Florida will be back home at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center at 7 p.m. Wednesday to host the South Carolina Gamecocks. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.
Brandon Hernandez is a student at the University of Florida studying journalism. He is a writer for The Alligator, Gator Country and for PlugTalkSports. You can find most of his work on his Twitter (BranH2001) and on his podcast, “The Courtside Podcast,” on Spotify.