STARKVILLE, MISSISSIPPI (TICKER)—Florida had more than enough to overcome the struggles of freshman Matt Walsh.
Justin Hamilton scored a season-high 22 points and Matt Bonner added 16 as the 12th-ranked Gators won their eighth straight and snapped No. 8 Mississippi State’s 10-game winning streak with a 74-66 victory in the Southeastern Conference opener for both schools.
Walsh leads Florida (12-2) in scoring at 16.8 points per game but had just four as he was in foul trouble most of the night.
Hamilton scored 14 points in the first half and Bonner netted 14 in the second as the Gators won for the third time in their last four visits to Starkville.
“It was a great win for us,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “I thought in the second half we had better ball movement. I thought Matt Bonner had some more touches and got to the free-throw line.”
Hamilton had a pair of baskets in a 12-1 run to open the second half as Florida built a 43-36 lead. A 3-pointer by Bonner extended the advantage to 49-41 with under 15 minutes left.
After a miss by freshman Anthony Roberson, Gators point guard Brett Nelson grabbed the offensive rebound and fed David Lee with a behind-the-back pass for a 63-54 advantage with 5:44 remaining.
Mississippi State (10-2) pulled within 70-66 on a 3-pointer by Michal Ignerski with 62 seconds to go. The Bulldogs curiously chose not to foul and Walsh converted a layup with 25 seconds remaining - his second basket of the game - for a six-point lead.
“Give Florida a lot of credit,” Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. “They came in and did what you have to do to win the basketball game. It was the first time all year that I told my team that we got outworked, in particular at the start of the second half.”
The Bulldogs’ streak of 12 wins in conference openers also came to an end. They fell to 5-1 with star center Mario Austin, who scored 22 points and grabbed a career-high 16 rebounds.
“I think that as a team we didn’t play well defensively,” Austin said. “When you don’t play good defense, the other team takes that and it shows out on the court.”
Mississippi State had the better of the play in the first half as Timmy Bowers made a layup and Winsome Frazier drained a 3-pointer for a 20-14 advantage with 8:11 to play. Ontario Harper drained the Bulldogs’ fifth 3-pointer of the half with 44 seconds left for a 35-29 cushion at the break.
Only Hamilton’s strong play and Roberson scoring 10 of his 12 points in the first half kept Florida close. Lee grabbed eight rebounds as the Gators stayed within 39-36 on the glass against the bigger Bulldogs.
“Justin Hamilton, from start to finish in the basketball game, really played well,” Donovan said. “He was the difference. He and Roberson kept us in the game in the first half.”
The Bulldogs went cold in the second half, missing their first seven 3-pointers and shooting 35.5 percent (11-of-31). Austin also committed six of their 20 turnovers.
“We just couldn’t hit shots,” Bowers said. “We had some open looks, but we just couldn’t make the shots.”
In an effort to contain Austin, Donovan employed seldom-used freshman Adrian Moss. Moss, a 6-9 forward, picked up four fouls in 16 minutes and had one exchange that looked like a wrestling match in which both players fell to the floor with their arms locked.
“Austin is a tough player to guard,” Donovan said. “He’s a very good player.”
Bowers finished with 14 points, but Ignerski, who was averaging 10.5 points, was limited to five on 1-of-7 shooting. Derrick Zimmerman, a noted 3-point shooter, fouled out with eight points.
“They did a good job changing their defenses,” Zimmerman said. “We just never got into the flow on offense. If I had a reason as to why we came out flat, I would have stopped it.”
Mississippi State, which defeated Florida in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament last season, missed a chance to beat the Gators in back-to-back contests for the first time since the 1989-90 season.