January 31, 2014 3:52:46 AM
STARKVILLE - The announced crowd 7,989 at Humphrey Coliseum saw the difference between a rebuilding project and a possible Final Four caliber program.
With his third-ranked team up just one at halftime, Florida coach Billy Donovan had just one message for his players that made a major difference in a 62-51 victory over a overmatched Mississippi State squad.
"Play harder," Florida senior center Patric Young said. "Don't play down to Mississippi State's level."
Young was a force on the low block for Florida (18-2, 7-0 in Southeastern Conference) with 12 points, eight rebounds and three blocks against a eventually hobbled Gavin Ware and other undersized post players.
"We got him off to a really good start," Donovan said. "The first four points were scored by him. We ran a play and kind of rolled him to the basket, and we got a deep post position and we found it and he made a layup inside."
The Gators 240-pound center throw around MSU's combination of forwards including Ware after the Bulldogs sophomore from Starkville appeared to suffer a left knee injury early in the second half. Young has now scored double figures in eight of the Gators last nine contests as a undersized MSU team could do little to stop Young getting looks from point-blank range.
"Patric Young is a guy that gave great energy in the second half," MSU coach Rick Ray said. "We just didn't do anything do stop him from getting offensive rebounds and from ducking in and getting great post position.
By forcing turnovers and getting a momentum shifting 8-0 run to end the first half, Mississippi State (13-7, 3-4) managed to hold on to a just a 27-26 deficit. However, in similar fashions against quality teams during the 2013-14 season, MSU couldn't maintain a high second half intensity to pull off the upset.
"With them it's a nick here and a nick here and eventually you're cut," Ray said. "When you go from a freshman to a sophomore, there is a maturation process. Right now, we know who we are and what we are trying to do."
Donovan agreed the biggest key for his team's 12th straight victory was the Gators ability to guard MSU's dribble penetration slashers without fouling and therefore sending the Bulldogs to free throw line. In six previous SEC games, MSU had shot 52 more free throws than its opponents and had converted 29 more points at the line. Thursday night resulted in MSU taking just seven free throw attempts and just one in the second half.
Florida withstood a lackluster first half effort and a poor shooting night from its guards to survive against
When asked what Colin Borchert took away from the loss Thursday night, Borchert needed to just look no further than the 82-47 embarrassment in Starkville last year.
"We didn't get blown out," Borchert said. "All of the losses that we have had so far have been blowouts. We lost to Ole Miss by 20, to Alabama by 30. We went out and competed. We did not give up throughout the entire game, and we kept the other team on their toes. If we can play actively, we can show that we can compete with the best. That is the biggest thing that came out of tonight."
Ray wasn't willing to allow this loss to be called a moral victory but said he can see the maturation process of his rebuilding project in Starkville after having a second-half lead against No. 3 in the latest Associated Press poll.
"I don't want to say this is a moral victory, I don't look at it that way," Ray said. "But anybody can see we've improved."
Florida built the lead to 13 at 55-42 with 6:05 remaining. MSU closed within nine twice the rest of the way but could not maintain a serious threat.
MSU got nothing productive from sophomore forward Fred Thomas as the sophomore got two quick fouls that forced him to sit next to Ray and the MSU coaching staff with just over 17 minutes left in the first half. Thomas failed to score for the first time this season and his absence on the defensive end contributed to Florida's Casey Prather having a game-high 16 points on 7 of 8 shooting.
"We came out with more focus, played harder and were better connected and more determined," Young said of the second half. "We can't control the ball going in the basket, but we can control our energy on the defensive end of the floor."
MSU hits the road for a Saturday contest at Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs and Commodores tip at 4 p.m. from Memorial Gymnasium. The contest will be televised regionally by Fox Sports Net South.
All of the Dispatch MSU Sports Blog readers: feel free to follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/matthewcstevens for up-to-date Mississippi State coverage.
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