Sunday was not the first time the No. 11/13 Florida Gators dropped a single-digit decision this season. In fact, Florida (26-7) fell to 0-6 on the 2012-13 campaign in games decided by fewer than 10 points after it fell 66-63 in the 2013 SEC Tournament Championship to the Ole Miss Rebels (26-8).
The Gators, which were looking to sweep the SEC titles for the first time since 2006-07, led by 12 at halftime but were outscored 40-25 by the Rebels in the second half, a dominant performance by the underdogs.
Forward Murphy Holloway led Ole Miss with a fantastic performance as he scored a game-high 23 points on 11-of-14 shooting to go along with eight rebounds. Nearly equaling his impact was Rebels guard Marshall Henderson, who scored 21 points on 3-of-8 shooting from downtown and played a big part in his team’s second-half comeback from an emotional standpoint.
Unlike its semifinal game, Florida started Sunday’s final with a hot hand, hitting four of its first five shots and running its lead up to 18-6 midway through the first half on the back of four three-pointers including three from freshman G Michael Frazier II.
A 5-0 run for Ole Miss cut its deficit in half temporarily. Gators senior G Kenny Boynton responded with 11 points – including three triples – over a five-minute stretch to push UF’s lead to 14 points with less than two minutes to play in the first half.
Florida led by 12 at the break after hitting 7-of-14 three-pointers and 5-of-6 free throws.
The Rebels opened the second half reinvigorated and immediately took off on a 10-3 run to reduce their deficit to five points. After Gators senior F Erik Murphy seemingly got robbed of a goaltending call, Ole Miss G Marshall Henderson drained a three on the ensuing possession and ramped up the energy of both his team and its fans.
Florida was unhappy with another officiating decision as junior point guard Scottie Wilbekin was called for a foul on Henderson when he seemingly blocked his three-point attempt. Henderson hit all three free throws and propelled his team to a 7-0 run that tied the game at 43 with 13:40 remaining.
Just over a minute later, Wilbekin once again fouled Henderson on a three with the latter player again making all three of his free throws to give the Rebels their first lead of the game at 48-46 with 12:16 to play. Ole Miss used another 7-0 run to open the half outscoring UF 26-8 to take a six-point lead.
“I thought [they were] very questionable calls, in my opinion, him being called for fouls,” Florida head coach Billy Donovan said. “I asked Scottie. He said, ‘Coach, I didn’t touch him either time.’ Those times the ref obviously saw it different.”
Back-to-back threes by redshirt senior G Mike Rosario – who scored 11 of the Gators’ first 12 points in the second half – and Murphy gave Florida back a one-point advantage with nine minutes to play, but UF only held the lead for a moment. The Rebels used another 7-0 run including five-straight points (and a Gator Chomp) from Henderson to retake a six-point lead with 7:12 left in the game.
A lay-in Rosario with 37 seconds remaining kept the Gators within two points and a hustle play by junior F Casey Prather got Florida the ball back down two with 22 seconds remaining. After a timeout called by Donovan, Murphy found the ball in the post but missed an off-balance one-handed hook. Murphy immediately fouled Holloway, who made one free throw at the other end and spotted Ole Miss a three-point lead with eight seconds left.
Wilbekin was purposely fouled on the ensuing possession so Florida could not shoot a potentially game-tying three but missed his first free throw. He purposely clanked the second and Boynton got a look at the buzzer but was unable to knock it down.
The Gators missed their final six free throws of the game (one on purpose), making their three-point loss even more difficult to swallow. Florida was looking for its fourth SEC Tournament title in eight appearances.
“I felt that we didn’t take advantage of the opportunity in the second half being up 12 and knowing that that team plays very well in the second half,” Rosario said. “As a team we didn’t respond early in the first four minutes and we gave the momentum [away], and I felt that they took that momentum in a positive way and just gave their team a lot of energy in the second half.”
Rosario finished with a team-high 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting and a career-high nine rebounds to lead the Gators. Boynton contributed 13 points (two in the second half). Murphy finished with nine points and seven boards, and Young was just 1-of-3 for three points with only four rebounds. Frazier, who was a big part of UF jumping out to an early lead, was held scoreless in the second half and finished with nine points.
Despite its hot start, Florida shot just 37.3 percent for the game, going 4-for-16 from downtown and 3-for-11 from the charity stripe in the second half. Ole Miss won the rebounding battle 41-39 and dominated paint scoring 26-16.
Now forced to sit and wait, the Gators will learn Sunday evening where it will be seeded in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Florida may have had a shot at a two-seed with a victory on Sunday but now must settle for either a three- or four-seed.
“The best thing about this next tournament that’s coming up, NCAA Tournament, is the fact that as a team we’ve been in every tight situation possible this year and that’s the beauty of it, because now we know what to expect. We know what we have to do,” Rosario said. “We got to make sure we come out in the second half and be on edge and take advantage of the opportunity. And I feel like once we get back to practice [and] coach breaks down film for us, we just got to take that and embrace it and get ready for these situations coming up.”