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.”
Billy Donovan was on top of the world three years ago when his Florida Gators won back-to-back national titles.
Now there's a chance that his team could be headed to its third consecutive NIT berth.
Florida does have a pair of quality non-conference wins to hang its hat on – a home victory over Florida State and more importantly, a neutral-site win against Michigan State – but the Gators need to finish strong in order to get back to the Big Dance.
Florida, which is 18-8 overall and 7-4 in SEC play, has a difficult five-game stretch to end the season, beginning with a road game at Ole Miss on Saturday.
The Gators have home games against a pair of ranked teams, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, and road contests at Georgia and No. 2 Kentucky.
Here's a preview of this weekend's action:
CAN'T MISS: Kentucky at Vanderbilt, Saturday at 6 p.m. ET – The Wildcats pulled out a road win down in Starkville against Mississippi State earlier this week and Kevin Stallings' team is coming off a road victory of its own against Ole Miss. This will be Kentucky's first crack at beating a Top 25 team in a true road contest.
UNDERCARD: Ohio State at Michigan State, Sunday at 12 p.m. ET – Evan Turner and the Buckeyes can remain in the hunt for the Big Ten title if they can pull out a road game in East Lansing against the Spartans. It's also a matchup of two of the nation's top point guards: Turner and Michigan State's Kalin Lucas.
REAL DEAL? Virginia Tech at Duke, Sunday at 7:45 p.m. ET – It's a battle of the two top teams in the ACC standings, but the Hokies are still somewhat of a mystery due to their semi-soft non-conference schedule. Seth Greenberg's team has won five straight and a victory in Cameron would almost certainly result in inclusion into the Top 25.
IVY LEAGUE SPECIAL: Let's hope the Cornell-Harvard rematch is more competitive than Round 1 in Ithaca. The Big Red pounded Tommy Amaker's team by 36 points three weeks ago and Cornell has a one-game lead over the Crimson after Steve Donohue's team was shocked by Penn on Feb. 12. It may be different since this one is at Harvard, but Crimson star guard Jeremy Lin needs to make sure he takes care of the ball this time around.
UPSET SPECIAL: Tulsa to knock off a UTEP team that has reeled off nine straight victories. Doug Wojcik's team is struggling of late, having lost three of its last four, but I expect Ben Uzoh to have a big game against the Miners – who are 10-1 in C-USA play.
NON-BCS MATCHUP: I am a fan of the BracketBuster because it gives us games such as Siena at Butler. Two of the elite mid-major teams in the nation will go at it Saturday at 11 a.m. ET at Hinkle. The Bulldogs should be in decent shape regardless of the outcome of this game, but Siena needs this one to move closer to an at-large berth in case the Saints don't win the MAAC tourney.
MUST-WIN: The UConn Huskies can't lose Saturday afternoon at Rutgers if Jim Calhoun's team has any shot of getting into the Big Dance. UConn is 15-11 overall and 5-8 in league play with five regular-season games left.
SLIPPING: Northwestern was in decent position to earn its first-ever NCAA tournament bid, but the injuries seem to have caught up to Bill Carmody and the Wildcats. A loss to Iowa earlier in the week hurt badly and now Northwestern may need a road win Saturday afternoon in Madison against Wisconsin to realistically get back in position.
IMPORTANT: Old Dominion at Northern Iowa, Friday at 7 p.m. ET – Ben Jacobson's Panthers will be without big man Jordan Egleseder for the second consecutive game due to a suspension for DWI. Northern Iowa can't afford a loss in order to stay in the hunt for an at-large berth in case the Panthers don't win the Missouri Valley tournament.
UNDER-THE-RADAR: Xavier at Charlotte, Saturday at 2 p.m. ET – Both teams enter the game with an 18-7 overall mark. Chris Mack's Musketeers are 9-2 in A-10 play, just 1/2 game behind Richmond – while Charlotte is 8-3 in league action and has lost two straight – including a setback at home to Duquesne.
Florida had a chance in its final non-conference game of the season to change its recent perception as February fade artists.
Xavier's bigger, more physical front line had other ideas.
Behind a dominant performance on the glass and in the paint, Xavier turned the O'Connell Center into its own house of horrors. The Musketeers took Florida to the woodshed, winning 76-64 and delivering another blow to UF's NCAA Tournament hopes.
Florida is now 2-2 in February. With games coming up at Ole Miss, at Georgia and at home against Tennessee, a losing month isn't out of the question.
"It hurts," said Florida junior Chandler Parsons, who led four Florida players in double figures with 15 points. "From your guys' eyes, you might be seeing the same things, but we are a much better team. We work harder and are more together. We just have to go out and prove it on the court."
Xavier (17-7) out-rebounded Florida 44-36, grabbed 19 offensive rebounds and scored 42 points in the paint.
"They just killed us on the glass and in the paint," Parsons said.
All Xavier needed was Love, or in other words, 6-foot-10, 265-pound, space-eating center Jason Love. He had 20 points and 10 rebounds, turning the paint into his own personal playground.
"I just wanted to step up today and help lead this team to a road win that we really needed," Love said
Afterward, Florida coach Billy Donovan provided a mea culpa, blaming his team's problems on lack of depth because of recruiting, injuries and the early departures of Nick Calathes and Marreese Speights.
"I think our guys are about the right things," Donovan said.
In a game critical to Florida's postseason hopes, the Gators had another awful day from the free-throw line, going 12 for 23. Florida has missed 24 free throws over the last two games.
Still, Florida rallied from a 16-point, first-half deficit to take a 52-50 lead when sophomore guard Ray Shipman made one of two free throws with 10:46 left. But the Gators managed to score just 12 points over the final 10 minutes.
"Early in the game, I thought, our guys had to get adjusted to how fast they were and how physical they were," Donovan said. "Overall, their team speed, athleticism and strength were far better than ours and certainly was a factor in the game."
Xavier took the lead for good 54-52 on a short jumper from 7-foot center Kenny Frease. Then, off a turnover from Florida point guard Erving Walker, Xavier guard Dante Jackson made a big 3-pointer from the corner to extend the lead to 57-52.
Parsons hit a 3-pointer to cut Xavier's lead to 62-59. Florida had a chance to tie, but freshman Kenny Boynton missed a 3-point attempt with 3:11 left. Off a long rebound, Love found sophomore guard Jordan Crawford in transition. Crawford converted a three-point play when he was fouled by center Vernon Macklin on a driving layup to extend the lead back to 65-59.
In its next three possessions, Florida missed two more 3-point attempts and an inside layup attempt from junior forward Alex Tyus. Xavier took advantage, building its lead to 70-59 with 1:08 left.
Crawford added 18 points for Xavier. Macklin recorded his first career double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Boynton had 12 points and Walker had 11 points and eight assists off the bench. Walker didn't start because he was late for a pregame team meeting, but still wound up playing 32 minutes.
It was an off night for Tyus, who had just nine points on four of 13 shooting.
"When we don't get scoring at a good clip from Erving, Kenny Boynton or Alex, it puts an enormous amount of pressure on our defense," Donovan said.
Florida came out with a surprising lack of energy and focus early. The Gators fell behind 38-22, with Xavier shredding UF's press and beating them down the court with regularity.
"It's disappointing," Parsons said. "We just didn't follow the scouting report as well as we could have. We could have done a better job stopping them in transition."
But Florida closed the half with an 11-2 run, cutting Xavier's lead to 40-33 at the half on a Boynton 3-pointer with 14.6 seconds remaining.
"We knew we were capable of making a run," Parsons said. "We didn't want to get embarrassed on our home floor."
If Florida hopes to make the big dance for the first time since 2007, then the Gator's need a key non-conference win Saturday when they host Xavier.
By Mark Schlabach
Xavier at Florida (ESPN, 6 p.m. ET): Both teams could really use a signature victory, but the Gators probably need it more than the Musketeers at this point. Florida has an RPI ranking of No. 52 after losing at South Carolina 77-71 on Wednesday night. The Gators beat Michigan State and Florida State back in November, but haven't beaten anybody of real consequence since. Florida is 1-4 against RPI top-25 foes and 2-5 against the top 50. Xavier is 1-5 against the top 25 and 3-6 against the top 50. The Musketeers could really use a big nonconference road win to go with their A-10 victories over Rhode Island, Dayton and Charlotte.