Twelve seconds. That’s how long the Florida Gators needed to hold onto a one-possession lead against the Mississippi State Bulldogs to return from their two-game road trip on a high note. As the clock ticked away, Mississippi State made aggressive runs at the basket to close the gap after being down as much as 16 in the first half.
Miss. Rebound Bulldogs. Miss. And then, the ball fell safely into the hands of fifth-year star Colin Castleton to secure the win.
Florida (11-8, 4-3 SEC) defeated Mississippi State (12-7, 1-6 SEC) 61-59 Saturday in a nail-biting victory. Castleton led the way with 13 points, followed closely by Belmont transfer guard Will Richard with 12.
The Gators entered the second leg of their two-game road trip coming off of a tough loss against the Texas A&M Aggies. The Aggies held UF to just 12 points in the first half and held onto to a tight lead late, 54-52, to snap the Gators’ three-game Southeastern Conference winning streak.
The Bulldogs have shared similar in-conference struggles, dropping their last three matchups before taking on Florida Saturday night.
Mississippi State found the bottom of the bucket first thanks to a put-back basket by Bulldogs forward Tolu Smith. Entering the game, Smith ranked second in the SEC in field goal percentage.
Florida responded quickly with two makes from behind the arc. Castleton sunk the first, followed by Richard. An early 3-for-4 shooting performance from the 3-point line plus a bucket inside by senior point guard Kyle Lofton put the Gators up 11-3 early and forced a Bulldogs timeout.
Both offenses slowed down as MSU struggled to close the gap. Eventually the Gators rediscovered their pace. Richard sunk his second and third 3-pointer of the night to help put the Gators up 10, 27-17, with five minutes to go in the first half.
Of nine UF players who took the floor in half one, just two failed to score a basket. Richard led the way with nine points on perfect 3-3 shooting from downtown. The Bulldogs did their best to keep it close, but the most they could muster was a single deficit. As Florida departed the court for the locker room, it led 33-24.
The Bulldogs came out firing in the second half. They came out on a 6-0 run early to bring the game within four, 36-32.
Nearing the twelve minute mark, Mississippi State knocked down back-to-back threes — its first and second of the night — to tie it up at 40. Reeves answered with his first bucket, nailing a shot from long range to go up 43-40 before the media timeout at 11:40.
With just under 10 minutes to go, the Bulldogs made it a tie game once more. From there, the both teams picked it up and began exchanging blows.
The Gators stayed hot longer, going on a 7-0 run and claiming a 52-45 lead at the seven-minute media break. Castleton led the way with X second half points. A pair of 3-pointers from Kugel and Reeves made it 10 points, 60-50, with just over four minutes to go.
Mississippi State attempted to hold firm, knocking down two more shots to make it a 60-54 Gators lead at the 2:25 media break.
Out of the break, the Bulldogs began to look dangerous. They made three-straight buckets to bring the game within one possession with a minute until the buzzer. Florida held on to secure the road win.
Next up, the Gators will head back to Gainesville for a home stand against the South Carolina Gamecocks Wednesday.
The Gamecocks have struggled this year, beginning SEC play with the second worst record at 1-5, ahead of only Louisiana State, Ole Miss and now Mississippi State at 1-6. However, U of SC does boast NBA Draft prospect G.G. Jackson on its roster. The 17-year-old wing is averaging 15.1 points per game on 38.7% shooting and is projected as a lottery pick by many draft analysts.
The game tips off at 7 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN2.