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College basketball

Gators start strong in SEC

NO. 11 UF 74, NO. 7 MISS ST. 66: Seniors key impressive road win in conference opener.

©Associated Press

January 8, 2003

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Florida showed it has some very good seniors to go with those fabulous freshmen.

Justin Hamilton scored a season-high 22 and Matt Bonner and Brett Nelson made key plays in the second half as the seniors led the 11th-ranked Gators to a 74-66 victory over No. 7 Mississippi State on Tuesday night.

Florida won its eighth consecutive game in a Southeastern Conference opener for both schools that had a postseason atmosphere and raucous crowd.

"Justin Hamilton, from start to finish, in this basketball game, really played well," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "He was the difference."

Mario Austin had 22 points and 16 rebounds for Mississippi State, the defending SEC tournament champion that had its 10-game win streak snapped.

Freshmen Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson entered as the Gators leading scorers, but both deferred to their elders on this night.

Walsh, who went in averaging better than 16 points, was held to four and was 0-for-4 from 3-point range. Roberson scored 12 but just two in the second half.

"Before the game they can act confident," Bonner said of the neophyte Gators, "but you don't know what it's like until you play a road game in the SEC."

Hamilton, who was averaging nine points, was unstoppable from the start, hitting two 3-pointers to open the game. He had 14 of the Gators' 29 first-half points.

"Thank God he was on or we would have been in trouble," Bonner said.

Bonner had all but two of his 16 points in the second half, and Nelson had all eight of his after halftime.

Bonner's baseline turnaround jumper with 7:30 left put the Gators up 58-52. Then Nelson, who has become something of a forgotten man with the emergence of the younger players, made a couple of key plays.

First, he hit a 3-pointer to make it 61-52 and give the Gators their biggest lead to that point. On the next trip down the floor, he ran down a long rebound and zipped a behind-the-back pass to David Lee for a dunk to make it 63-54 with about six minutes left.

"Our team is about defense and playing with great energy," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. "And we didn't have that in the second half."

Mississippi State stayed within 10 despite shooting 35 percent in the second half. Michael Ignerski's 3-pointer, his first basket of the game, cut the lead to 70-66 with about a minute left.

But the freshmen finally were heard from in the final minute. Walsh hit a driving layup as the shot clock wound down to make it 72-66 and Roberson sealed it with two free throws.

Trailing 35-29 at halftime, the Gators started the second half swarming on defense and forced the Bulldogs into four turnovers in their first five possessions.

"That's where the game was won," Stansbury said.

Florida outscored Mississippi State 15-6 in the first five minutes of the second half to take a 46-41 lead. The Bulldogs didn't score their first field goal of the second half until Derrick Zimmerman's follow dunk with 15:05 left.

Zimmerman said Mississippi State's ranking, its highest since the 1962-63 season, may have gone to the Bulldogs' heads.

"It was a good loss for us. We needed that," Zimmerman said. "That loss brought us back down to earth."

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