The Gators got a spirited, come from behind victory over the Mississippi State Bulldogs Wednesday night winning 70-62. Florida has now won two straight and is 2-3 in SEC play and 11-6 overall. In a game where Florida was without their star player, senior center Colin Castleton (shoulder), the Gators got key contributions from all over the place, especially down the stretch. By the looks of it right now, these contributors are going to have to continue to step up, as Mike White said after the game that Castleton's injury was "significant".
Pregame News and Slow Start in Half 1
About 30 minutes before tip off, the news broke that Colin Castleton was out for the game with a shoulder injury he sustained in practice on Tuesday. This was a nightmare scenario for the Gators, as Mississippi State was probably the last team that they wanted to have to face without Castleton. Reason being is the Bulldogs are one of the best rebounding teams, more specifically offensive rebounding teams, in the nation and are equipped with a very good front court duo of Tolu Smith and Garrison Brooks. Florida was going to have their hands full and guys like Jason Jitoboh, Anthony Duruji, CJ Felder and even Tuongthach Gatkek would have to step up if the Gators were to have a chance.
And at first, it didn't look like that was going to happen. Florida began the game subbing at a frantic pace, with Mike White switching guys in and out what seemed like every 30 seconds or so. This was because in Castleton's absence, White was trying to mix it up on the Bulldogs and give them different looks as well as to see what combinations were working best. It was evident from the first time a shot went up, though, that Mississippi State was going to own the boards. The Dogs finished the half up 17-11 in the rebounding department and most of those Gator rebounds were due to pure effort. Jason Jitoboh struggled, not doing much of anything effective and picking up three fouls in the first half. Gatkek played with good effort, but was no match for the Bulldog bigs that gave Florida fits in half number one.
Offensively, the Gators struggled mightily in Castleton's absence. You could really tell how much of a difference he makes to this team in the first half, as everything just looked out of sorts and the Gators had trouble getting any sort of good looks. They didn't shoot the ball badly, finishing 10-21 (47.6%) from the field and 5-12 (41.7%) from behind the arc. However, they just had trouble finding any sort of rhythm and had a tough time getting consistent offense.
Gators Show Fight Down the Stretch
Coming out of the half, Florida looked ready to go. Offensively, everything looked good and they were playing with much better flow. Part of this was due to their ability to successfully penetrate and kick, something that they very much struggled with in the first. On top of that, the Gators shot the ball very well in the second half, finishing the game shooting 23-45 (51.1%) from the field and 10-24 (41.7%) from 3. This was a welcomed sight as shooting, specifically 3 point shooting, has been an issue with this team all year.
And there were some big 3's hit by the Gators. perhaps the biggest shot of the game for Florida came with 7:05 to play in the game. To that point, the Gators has hung around and kept it close but hadn't gotten over the hump and secured a lead. It looked as though it was going to be another tough loss, where Florida fights all game but just couldn't make enough stops or get the big shot to win. That all changed, however, when Tyree Appleby crossed over the Bulldogs' Shakeel Moore, stepped back and hit a big 3 while getting fouled in the process. The O'Dome erupted and that was the spark the Gators needed.
Appleby proceeded to make the free throw and cut the Mississippi State lead to 64-61. Florida's next to possessions ended with Jason Jitoboh jamming the ball home under the rim, something that got the crowd frenzied. With a Bulldog layup sandwiched between those two dunks, the Gators trailed 66-65. From then on Florida went on a tear, finishing the game on a 15-6 run that included a transition Kowacie Reeves dagger 3 with 3:48 left to put the Gators up seven. Florida was just too much down the stretch for the Dogs and walked a way with a massive comeback victory in their home floor.
This was something that, as a Gator fan, you couldn't be happier to see. These guys like Jitoboh, Appleby, Duruji and others knew what they had to do without their star and delivered. The fight this team showed down the stretch of that game should be applauded and it's something you hope they will continue to build on.
As I said, being so used to being on the wrong side of those games so many times in the Mike White era, getting a come from behind win without Castleton felt really, really good. Jason Jitoboh played a massive role in the last 7-8 minutes or so, getting two huge dunks and some big stops for the Gators, finishing with 8 points and 2 rebounds. Tyree Appleby showed his senior leadership in this game, making the offense go in the second half and showing toughness down the stretch. He finished with 17 points and 5 assists off the bench on 4-9 shooting from behind the arc. Anthony Duruji also played a major part in the win, with 22 points and 5 steals on 6-8 shooting from the field.
As a team, the free throw shooting was very good, going 24-30 (80%) for the game, something that has been an issue all year. On top of this, they won the turnover battle by forcing the Bulldogs into 16 and only committing 12 for the game. While Florida did get out rebounded, something that was expected, the fight and toughness they showed late as well as pulling in some key boards all played a major role in this win.
Outside of the Ohio St. game, this is the best win of the season for my money. The Gators are going to need these contributions to continue the rest of the year, with or without Colin Castleton. And with the news of his injury being "significant", it's imperative that they get them.