GAINESVILLE -- Mississippi State came to Gainesville with just six scholarship players available for a game against No. 2 Florida. The result was predictable.
Fresh off their first Southeastern Conference loss, the Gators used the chance against the hapless Bulldogs to get back on track, winning 83-58 in the O’Connell Center on Saturday. It was the eighth loss in a row for Mississippi State as Florida completed a season sweep, winning the two games by a combined 60 points.
Already down three players for the season because of injuries, the Bulldogs were playing without their best remaining player as junior guard Jalen Steele (9.3 points per game) did not make the trip after being suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. The Gators took advantage.
“Coach stressed in practice that we were going to have to run this game,” guard Michael Frazier said. “We did that and got open looks, layups – that worked for us.”
Florida (19-3, 9-1 SEC) scored 16 points on the fast break and capitalized on 16 turnovers, turning the giveaways from Mississippi State (7-15, 2-8) into 21 points. A freshman, Frazier made his first career start in place of junior Scottie Wilbekin, whom coach Billy Donovan said was benched because of poor demeanor in practice following the team’s loss to Arkansas.
“It wasn’t a bad attitude. It wasn’t like he wasn’t trying. It wasn’t like he quit. It was nothing like that,” Donovan said. “He was just not his normal Scottie Wilbekin self in practice. … I just told him, I said ‘Listen, we’re coming off a tough loss against Arkansas. We need energy, we need passion, and if you’re not going to play with passion, we’re going to start somebody else.’ ”
His replacement provided an early spark after a slow start, as Frazier made three consecutive three-pointers to put Florida up 18-10 near the midway point of the first half. The freshman finished with 11 points and six rebounds.
Wilbekin had attempted 30 shots in the team’s past two games, something that also irked Donovan. He came off the bench to score just five points in 33 minutes, but he recorded seven assists and attempted just four shots. His wide-open three-pointer to open the second half started a 10-0 run that put Florida up 52-26 and put the game out of reach for short-handed Mississippi State.
Still, Donovan said the Gators have plenty of work to do on defense with forward and defensive specialist Will Yeguete out for the season and Kentucky coming to town Tuesday night. Yeguete was the key to Florida’s press but will not play again until the NCAA Tournament at the earliest after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee Friday to remove bone chips.
“I still think we need to get better [defensively],” Donovan said. “Any time you lose a guy like Will Yeguete, your defense is going to be different. It’s just going to be different. … Will adds a different dimension down there.”
Filling in for Yeguete, junior forward Casey Prather had 12 points and five rebounds in 22 minutes. Guard Mike Rosario led all scorers with 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting, a percentage matched by forward Erik Murphy, who scored 17.
Murphy went down late in the second half with an injury to his right ankle, but Donovan and teammates said he was fine after the game.