Gators play right into Bulldogs' hands

A physical game takes UF out of its strengths and damages its chances at an NCAA berth.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
Published March 2, 2008

GAINESVILLE - Self-destruction.

Webster's dictionary defines it as to destroy oneself. Florida can define it as Saturday's game against Mississippi State.

In a must-win game - at home - against the best team in the SEC West and the SEC's No.1 shot blocker, the Gators attempted to play a brand of basketball they aren't very good at: aggressive and physical.

And the bigger, more physical, more aggressive Mississippi State made them pay.

Bolstered by seven blocks and 40 rebounds - many from ill-advised, wild shots from the Gators - Mississippi State earned a 68-59 victory in front of 12,127 at the O'Connell Center.

"I thought we really contributed to what they do well," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "I really thought we exposed our own weaknesses. We allowed all those guys to do what they do great because we did not understand shot selection, we did not understand offense, and we really didn't understand how to attack these guys today. We made the game about athleticism, strength and physicality, and that's what we are definitely not. Definitely not."

Florida 21-8, 8-6 weakened its position on the proverbial NCAA bubble. In the locker room, the reality started to hit.

"Everybody is mad and sad in there," said sophomore center Marreese Speights, who had a team-high 20 points and 10 rebounds, his eighth double double of the season. "We're playing for a lot, and we just lost this game. It's crazy."

Florida trailed 39-27 at halftime after shooting 34 percent from the field, but the Bulldogs (20-8, 11-3) gave the Gators every opportunity to get back into it. Mississippi State went the first 8:04 of the second half without scoring a field goal, and the teams scored a combined 22 in the first 10 minutes.

The Gators could have made it a one-possession game trailing 41-36 but missed two free throws, then had three possessions of two turnovers and a missed shot while MSU scored five straight to take another 10-point lead. That was the way it went for Florida all day - with players missing on quick, outside jumpers and going soft to the hole and watching balls rim out consistently. MSU never trailed after a tie at 4.

"We got beat above the rim, and we got beat below the rim," Donovan said.

MSU sophomore guard Ben Hansbrough scored 20, Charles Rhodes added 15, and Jarvis Varnado, the SEC's leading shot-blocker, had 11 points and seven blocks.

Friday night, most Gator players etched an "F" into the side of their heads in a show of unity. The unified belief Saturday was that they let one get away. A big one.

"Definitely" it was a must-win, freshman Chandler Parsons said. "With everything we want to do, this win would have been huge. But we can't sit and dwell on it; we've got a huge game coming up Wednesday (vs. Tennessee). We've got to learn from what we did tonight and do a much better job Wednesday."

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.

Miss. St. 68

UF 59