GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP)—Top-ranked Florida played a really bad half Saturday against Mississippi.
Joakim Noah kept it from becoming a really bad game.
Noah had two momentum-changing baskets down the stretch, finished with a season-high 24 points to go with 12 rebounds and helped the Gators avoid a near collapse with a 79-70 victory over the pesky Rebels on Saturday.
The defending national champions led by 25 points, 53-28, early in the second period and looked as though they would cruise to their 10th consecutive win and 14th straight at home. But Ole Miss used a 29-11 run over a 10-minute span to make it a close game in the final 8 minutes.
Noah’s two big plays may have been the difference.
“Right now, I feel like in our locker room there’s a low, and I don’t feel like it should be like that,” Noah said. “A win is a win. We made a lot of mistakes in the game and we didn’t play as well as we should have in the second half, but at the same time, we learned from it and move on. It’s OK. It’s OK to win and learn.”
Noah probably prevented it from being a costly lesson.
With the Gators leading 66-57, Noah blocked Greg Hardy’s shot, ran to the other end of the floor, caught a full-court pass from Al Horford and converted a three-point play—scoring on a circus shot and then making the free throw.
The 6-foot-11 center started thumping his chest when the ball fell through the basket, giving the Gators (17-2, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) an emotional boost.
As Noah stepped to the foul line, Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy yelled to the officials: “They don’t need help. They’re the defending national champion.”
Florida extended the lead to 13 points, 73-60, but the Rebels stormed back by creating several turnovers.
“I thought we were completely, in the second half, outplayed, outperformed, out-everything,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said. “Things snowballed. I think Ole Miss got energy, got enthusiasm. They came in and took it to us. We had that look in our eyes like we didn’t want to compete like we needed to compete.
“I thought we became very, very complacent. We got up 25 points and we tried to cruise. We didn’t play for 40 minutes. We played for about 23.”
The biggest problem was Mississippi’s press.
“I felt like I was watching an elementary school team with the way we handled the press,” Donovan said.
Donovan blamed bench players, Noah and Taurean Green for his team’s 12 second-half turnovers. He said Noah needs to use the entire baseline to inbound the ball, and Green needs to avoid getting trapped in a corner.
Ole Miss (12-7, 1-4) made three straight buckets off turnovers to make it a seven-point game for the second time.
But Noah rebounded Green’s missed 3-point shot and slammed it home for another momentum-turning play. Green made two free throws, and Horford had a dunk in the closing minutes to seal the victory.
“We didn’t attack,” Green said. “We waited for the defense to come to us. I honestly can’t tell you why it happened. We know how to break a press. We go against the press every day. It was just a matter of us not executing.”
Clarence Sanders led Ole Miss with 17 points despite missing seven of eight 3-pointers.
“Florida is a monster team,” Kennedy said. “Individually, they are very talented. Collectively, they are much better. I was proud of our guys for not giving up. It could have gotten ugly, but we continued to fight. Obviously, we lost to a superior opponent.”
Noah was 9-of-10 from the field and 6-of-6 from the free-throw line.
Green added 14 points and six assists, while Lee Humphrey scored 13 points. Humphrey was 3-of-4 from 3-point range, improving to 17-of-24 from beyond the arc in conference play.
The Gators, who lead the nation in field-goal percentage, shot 61 percent from the floor. They played nearly flawless basketball in the first half, spreading the floor, getting everyone involved and making open shots.
They had 12 assists and six turnovers against Ole Miss’ trapping defense and were up 45-26 at the break. The Rebels’ press became more problematic for Florida in the second half. Mississippi forced 12 turnovers after the break and continually trimmed the lead—until Noah stepped up.
“He really carried us through the second half,” Horford said. “We needed that from him.”