Gators can't handle Mississippi State


Published: Saturday, March 1, 2008 at 6:26 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 1, 2008 at 6:26 p.m.

The calendar has turned to March and the reality is this Florida has a young, inconsistent team that may not make the NCAA Tournament.

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GAINESVILLE, FL--University of Florida's Marreese Speights is blocked while going up for a basket by Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado in the second half during their home loss to Mississippi State Saturday afternoon at home.--(Brandon Kruse/ The Gainesville Sun)

Brandon Kruse/The Gainesville Sun

Postseason hopes for Florida suffered another blow in a 68-59 loss to Mississippi State before 12,127 fans at the O'Connell Center and a national television audience.

The gameplan that Florida coach Billy Donovan had in mind was lost in translation once the Gators hit the court. Instead of moving the ball in an effort to get high percentage shots and get Mississippi State's big men in foul trouble, Florida jacked up ill-advised shots in transition and forced drives to the basket.

As a result, the game turned into a Jarvis Varnado block party. Varnado, Mississippi State's sophomore swatting center, blocked seven shots to increase his NCAA-leading total to 136.

"We exposed our own weaknesses by attacking a great shot-blocking team instead of getting shots through ball movement and player movement," Donovan said. "You would have thought we were the most athletic team in the country with the way we played today."

Sophomore center Marreese Speights led Florida with 20 points and 10 rebounds, but missed an alley-oop dunk in the first half and a few layups inside in the second half that could have cut into Mississippi State's lead. The Bulldogs (20-8, 11-3) led from the 17:28 mark in the first half and had answers for every Gator run. With Florida down six, Mississippi State sophomore guard Ben Hansbrough hit a big 3-pointer

with 2:37 left to extend the lead back to 61-52.

Hansbrough had 20 points and Varnado had 11 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists to help Mississippi State clinch the SEC West title outright.

"We still have a lot more to play for," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said.

Florida (21-8, 8-6) trailed 39-27 at halftime, but had a chance to make a more substantial run early in the second half. The Gators held Mississippi State to two points through the first 7:13 of the second half, but still trailed 41-36. During the stretch, both Speights and Alex Tyus missed easy layups inside, and Speights missed a pair of free throws.

"This hurts really bad," said Florida freshman forward Chandler Parsons, who scored eight points off the bench. "It seems like we didn't leave it all on the floor tonight."

Asked to elaborate, Parsons responded: "I don't think our team didn't go hard, it's just the little things like the missed shots inside that we normally make and the ill-advised shots we took on the break. We should have come out with better focus."

Defense was a problem for Florida early but improved as the game progressed. Florida held Mississippi State leading scorer Jamont Gordon to four points. Senior Mississippi State forward Charles Rhodes had a quiet 15 points inside.

"Rebounds were tied at 40, that wasn't a problem," Donovan said. "The problem was they beat us to loose balls. They were physically stronger than us, more athletic and longer."

Freshman Nick Calathes added 18 points and four assists and Walter Hodge scored 11 points. But Florida couldn't make the big shots from the perimeter it did in consecutive wins against South Carolina and Georgia. The Gators, who came into the game making 20 of their last 42 3-point attempts, went 7-for-25 from 3-point range Saturday.

Dan Werner was held scoreless before fouling out with 5:25 left. Werner was 0-for-6 from the floor and 0-for-3 from 3-point range in 21 minutes. Starting freshman guard Jai Lucas scored just two points.

"We just have to come back Monday," Calathes said. "I don't think we have any problems. I think we just need to finish shots, run like we're supposed to, and play how we're supposed to play."

But for Florida, finding an identity has been a struggle for most of the season. The Gators lack physical strength inside and haven't been as good shooting the ball from the perimeter as originally envisioned.

"I think it's been inconsistent," Donovan said, summing up where his team is now compared to the beginning of the season. "After the Georgia game, many people were saying this is one of our best games of the season, and then we come out and play like we did today. I see it in practice. As much as I'd like to fast-forward it, it's going to be part of the process for these games."

Florida will continue its brutal stretch to close the regular season with its final home game Wednesday against Tennessee.

"With everything we wanted to do, this win would have been huge," Parsons said. "But we have to learn from what we did tonight and come out on top Wednesday."

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