One day after battling back from a double digit second half deficit, the Florida Gators found themselves on the opposite side of a comeback, surrendering a 12 point halftime lead and dropping the SEC title game to Ole Miss, 66-63.
The Rebels second stanza charge was spearheaded by senior forward Murphy Holloway and junior guard Marshall Henderson. Holloway topped the stat sheet in points with 23 and rebounds with 10. Henderson scored 21 points, 18 of which came in the final 20 minutes of the game, along with three steals.
Senior Mike Rosario registered 18 points and a career high nine rebounds for Florida and guard Kenny Boynton followed up his dynamite day against Alabama with 13 points, while freshman Michael Frazier II scored nine points off the bench, shooting 3 of 5 from outside the arc.
Florida has thrived on suffocating defense all season long, but struggled to contain Ole Miss as the game stretched on. The Rebels outscored the Gators 40-25 in the final frame and dominated UF inside, scoring 36 points in the paint compared to merely 14 for Florida.
The Gators controlled the Rebels in the first 20 minutes, shooting effectively and frequently from beyond the arc and opening up a 14 point lead. At the conclusion of the half, the teams retreated to the locker room with Florida leading 38-26.
Fueled by the realization that a victory in the SEC Tournament final might have been the only way to clinch an NCAA Tournament berth, the Rebels rallied in the second half. The Gators were held to just seven points in the first 7:30 of the half, all of which were scored by Mike Rosario. In that span, the Rebels went on a 19-7 run to tie the game at 45-45. Henderson and Holloway continued their hot streaks, pushing the lead to as high as six with seven minutes to go courtesy of a long three pointer from Henderson that ignited the crowd and prompted a mocking Gator-chomp from the guard directed at the supporters of the Orange and Blue.
Trailing by three in the closing seconds, Scottie Wilbekin was sent to the free throw line but missed both shots. The ensuing three pointer at the buzzer by Kenny Boynton after an offensive rebound was off the mark, sealing the fate of the two teams.
Boynton says the final shot was rushed but the play unfolded exactly as planned.
A large disparity in shooting proved to be a key factor the game’s result. Florida shot just 22-59 (37.3%) from the field, approximately 10% worse than the Rebels, and just 8 of 17 from the free throw line. UF launched 31 shots from three point range, sinking 11.
Although more than half of the Florida’s shots from the field were from long distance, head coach Billy Donovan says the shots were not necessarily ill advised.
The Gators have lost four of their last 10 games to conclude the season and are 0-6 in games decided by six points or less, but Rosario doesn’t believe the team has lost confidence, and suggests that UF is well prepared for what they’ll face next week.
Announced Sunday night, the Gators will tip off play in the NCAA Tournament as a number three seed, taking on 14th seeded Northwestern State (23-8) on Friday in Austin, Texas in the South Regional.
SEC Tournament champion Ole Miss heads to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002, playing in the West/East Regional as anumber 12 seed, squaring off against fifth seeded Wisconsin on Friday in Kansas City, Missouri.