OXFORD, Miss. — Florida junior center Vernon Macklin kept hearing the cries from his coach to pound the ball inside.
Just what a big man loves to hear.
With offense from Macklin early and some clutch defense late, Florida picked up a resume-boosting 64-61 win over Ole Miss at Tad Smith Coliseum.
The Rebels had a chance to send the game to overtime, but sophomore guard Terrico White’s 3-point attempt clanged off the back rim at the buzzer. Florida (19-8, 8-4 Southeastern Conference) improved to 6-3 in games decided by five points or less. The Gators also bounced back to pick up two straight wins in less than 48 hours after back-to-back losses to South Carolina and Xavier.
“I thought our guys definitely showed some resiliency and some toughness,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “We’re not playing a lot of guys.”
For the second straight game, Florida also was terrific from the free throw line. The Gators shot a season-high 92.6 percent (25-27), including eight straight in the final 2:11. Florida shot 80 percent (32-40) from the line in its win Thursday night against Auburn.
Macklin scored a career-high 22 points, but a timely defensive play late turned the game for the Gators. With 58.6 seconds left, freshman Kenny Boynton, junior Chandler Parsons and junior Alex Tyus converged as Ole Miss guard Eniel Polynice drove toward the basket. Boynton initially knocked the ball away, though Tyus was credited with the steal. Parsons came up with the loose ball and found Boynton for a wide-open dunk to put Florida ahead to stay 58-56.
“We dug, and it was great help defense,” Parsons said. “KB went down the floor and we found him. It was just a good team defensive play.”
Sophomore point guard Erving Walker then made six straight free throws down the stretch to seal the game. Florida held Ole Miss to a season-low 61 points and scored 20 points off 15 Ole Miss turnovers. Ole Miss came into the game fourth in the SEC in scoring offense at 73.2 points per game.
“Our ability to guard in the second half and doing a good job on the offensive glass, getting some putbacks, was critical for us,” Donovan said.
Macklin single-handedly kept Florida in the game early, scoring 16 of UF’s first 27 points on a variety of inside hook shots, layups and dunks. Florida attacked the basket to overcome another poor shooting day. The Gators went 0-for-6 from 3-point range in the first half and 1-for-13 from the game.
“I just ran the floor and the guards found me early,” Macklin said. “So I just kept running the floor, and coach kept saying get the ball inside.”
Macklin’s previous career-high was 20 points against Mississippi State on Feb. 6. But in the following three games, Macklin reached double-figures just once while averaging eight points per game.
“I need to as a coach, continue to challenge him these next two days going into the (Tennessee) game, because you know what, he can do more and he can rebound better,” Donovan said. “There’s more that he can be doing. He played great and he carried us in a lot of ways, but he needs to now as a player to start to take that next step where he becomes a consistent player night after night.”
Parsons added 13 points and eight rebounds for Florida while Walker was up and down with 10 points, four assists and five turnovers. Terrance Henry led Ole Miss (17-9, 5-7 SEC) with 17 points off the bench. Chris Warren added 14 points for the
Rebels, more than two points below his average.
Down 30-29 at halftime, Parsons sparked a 13-5 run, scoring seven points on a jumper, three-point play and putback dunk of a Macklin miss that extended Florida’s lead to 42-35 with 15:35 left.
Of Florida’s 64 points, 34 came in the paint and 48 came from the frontcourt.
“We never want to live or die by the 3-point line,” Parsons said. “Coach Donovan wanted us to get the ball inside to Vern and Alex and Murphy and those guys did a heckuva job finishing. With their man-to-man defense, them pressuring out that far our guards were able to go by them and make plays.”
It also allowed the Gators to get to the free throw line. After White put Ole Miss ahead 56-54 on a 3-pointer with 2:31 left, Polynice fouled Parsons as he drove into the lane. Parsons made two big free throws with 2:11 left to tie the score.
“You try to do the things down the stretch that you have control over,” Donovan said.
With the win, Florida is now in better control of its chances to land an NCAA Tournament bid. The Gators will have another chance for a quality win Tuesday night at home against No. 20 Tennessee.
“We know where want to get to,” Parsons said. “This is a huge win on the road. We have to take one game at a time, keep rebounding and keep doing the physical things.”