Florida basketball: Three takeaways from Gators' OT loss to Mississippi State in SEC Tournament
Florida nearly rallied back from a 14-point first-half deficit but came up short in a 69-68 overtime loss to Mississippi State at the SEC Tournament on Thursday.
The Gators (16-16) now wait until Sunday night to see if they will make the NIT field. If not, it will be the first time they missed the postseason since 2014-15, when the Gators went 16-17 in Billy Donovan's last season as coach.
"We have a great shot to make it, getting to 16 wins, having a top 10 strength of schedule in the country, wins against Tennessee, wins on the road against Mississippi State, at home against Missouri," Florida coach Todd Golden said. "We have a lot of things we can hang our hat on."
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Florida trailed 31-17 in the first half at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, and 36-26 at halftime before rallying back to take a brief 38-37 lead on a 3-pointer by freshman center Alex Szymczyk.
Down 57-51, Florida rallied to force overtime on back-to-back 3-pointers by Myreon Jones. After Jones tied the score with a 3-pointer with 36 seconds left, he had a chance to win the game at the end of regulation, but his 3-pointer clanged off the iron.
Jones also missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer in overtime, which would have given eight-seed Florida the win. Instead, ninth-seed Mississippi State (21-11) will move on to face top-seed Alabama on Friday afternoon.
"Obviously a tough loss today for us," Golden said. "But with that being said, I was really proud of the way our guys continued to battle."
Here are three takeaways from the game:
An up and down game for Riley Kugel
Kugel scored a team-high 14 points for the Gators, including 5 points in overtime, to extend his streak of scoring in double figures to nine straight games.
Kugel sank a big 3-pointer with 36 seconds left in overtime to cut Mississippi State's lead to 67-64, then added two free throws to cut MSU's lead to 67-66 with 25 seconds left. On the ensuing possession, Kugel came up with a steal as Florida pressed, and the turnover resulted in a Niels Lane layup that gave Florida a 68-67 lead with 11 seconds remaining.
Mississippi State elected not to call a timeout and Dashawn Davis drove the lane to find Tolu Smith open for the game-winning basket.
Kugel wound up scoring just 9 points in regulation, including 2 in the second half, as he was hounded all afternoon by a Mississippi State defense designed to stop him. He had 4 turnovers and went 4 of 13 from floor and 2 of 8 from 3-point range.
"I had a rough start shooting the ball," Kugel said. "(Florida staff member) Taurean Green, he picked me up, hetold me all about my game isn't all about scoring. I can facilitate, make plays for others. He said, 'let the game come to you.' "
Gators can't slow MSU forward Tolu Smith inside
Smith wound up with a double-double with 28 points and 12 rebounds, going 9 of 19 from the field and 10 of 17 from the foul line. Florida switched and threw different defenders at the 6-foot-11, 245-pound All-SEC forward, but not much worked.
Starting center Jason Jitoboh was among post defenders who guarded Smith, but after Jitoboh picked up his third foul, Florida went with freshman center Alex Szymczyk and sophomore forward Alex Fudge the rest of the way. Fudge did come up with a big block of Smith near the end of regulation that allowed the Gators to rally late and force overtime.
"Tolu is a great player," Kugel said. "We knew we had to put a body on him. J, Symie, Fudge, they fought hard. The guards had a rotational block out. I just feel like the key was not letting him get deep paint touches. He kind of got that."
Another game where Florida was beaten up on the boards
In what's been a recurring theme all season, Florida was outrebounded 46-35 by Mississippi State. The Bulldogs grabbed 18 offensive rebounds in the first half and outscored Florida 14-9 in second-chance points.
Mississippi State outscored Florida 12-0 in second-chance points in the first half, a big reason why the Bulldogs were able to race a 36-26 halftime lead.