NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Florida closed the Southeastern Conference tournament by continuing its season-long trend of coming up short in close games.
The 13th-ranked Gators can only hope it isn’t a sign of things to come.
Florida led by as many as 14 points and was up 12 at halftime Sunday before Mississippi rallied for a 66-63 victory to win its first SEC tournament title since 1981.
Florida (26-7) entered the day leading the nation in scoring margin, but the Gators now head into the NCAA tournament with an 0-6 record in games decided by six points or fewer. All their wins have featured double-digit margins.
Gators coach Billy Donovan said he wasn’t concerned about his team’s confidence in these types of down-to-the-wire situations.
“What happens sometimes is people try to create drama around a situation that’s not necessarily true,” Donovan said.
Donovan said Florida’s problem Sunday wasn’t execution in the closing minutes when the Gators nearly worked their way back from a six-point deficit. He instead cited the Gators’ offensive struggles and uncharacteristic defensive breakdowns early in the second half.
Mississippi (26-8) opened the second half on a 26-8 run to take a six-point lead. Florida fought its way back from there and had a chance to tie the game in the final seconds.
After getting fouled with 4.2 seconds left, Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin missed his first free throw and then intentionally missed his second attempt. The rebound went to Boynton, who took a step behind the 3-point line and attempted a game-tying shot that bounced off the rim.
“I was trying to back up and make sure it was a 3-point shot before time ran out, so it was kind of a rushed shot,” Boynton said.
Boynton scored 13 points to make the all-tournament team along with teammate Erik Murphy. Mike Rosario had 18 points and nine rebounds for the Gators, while Murphy Holloway had 23 points and 10 rebounds for Mississippi.
But this tournament belonged to Mississippi guard Marshall Henderson.
The fiery SEC scoring leader had 27 points in a quarterfinal victory over Missouri and 23 in a semifinal triumph over Vanderbilt. His penchant for big shots and brash statements had made him the talk of the event.
Henderson was 1 of 6 field and scored three points in the first half Sunday. He finished with 21 points and was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
“It’s a crazy feeling,” Henderson said. “We knew we were going to make it the whole time. We just went through some adversity, but we’ve gone through adversity pretty much every game. … If we could play in the first half like we play in the second half, we’d win by 20 every game.”
Florida’s long-range shooting helped the Gators lead throughout the first half. Florida shot 7 of 14 from 3-point range while Mississippi was 2 of 9.
That didn’t bother Mississippi, which erased a 14-point, second-half deficit against Missouri and trailed by nine against Vanderbilt. The Rebels came storming back again Sunday and shot 53.6 percent (15 of 28) in the second half against one of the nation’s toughest defenses.
Ole Miss did all that while playing without starting point guard Jarvis Summers, who sat out a second straight game with a concussion.
“Florida’s had a lot of success. … They’re a legitimate Final Four contender,” Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy said. “Not saying they didn’t want to win this game, but for us, this was a special moment. It’s been a long time since Ole Miss had been on this stage. And our guys had earned the right to be here, and I wanted us to seize it.”
Mississippi took its first lead with 12:16 left when Henderson made three free throws after getting fouled by Wilbekin while attempting a 3-point shot. That marked the second time in a span of 3½ minutes that Wilbekin had fouled Henderson on a 3-point attempt, resulting in six points.
After Florida briefly regained the lead, Mississippi moved back ahead and built a six-point advantage during one devastating sequence.
Nick Williams missed a 3-point attempt, but Buckner tapped the ball back toward Henderson, who sank a baseline 3-pointer that put Mississippi ahead 59-53. Henderson celebrated by doing the Gator chomp to the crowd during the ensuing timeout.
The Gators kept coming back, though they never tied the game or regained the lead. Florida played hard enough down the stretch to support Donovan’s notion that the team still has plenty of confidence in tight games.
“Did we fight and battle and scratch? Yes,” Donovan said. “I didn’t feel like our guys’ confidence was down.”
Florida trailed 61-59 and had a shot to even the score when Michael Frazier II — an 85 percent free throw shooter — missed the front end of a 1-and-1. The Gators made 3 of 11 free throws in the second half.
Florida had one more chance to tie the game in the final minute when Casey Prather stole the ball from Henderson, but Murphy’s 8-footer in the paint bounced off the rim with less than 10 seconds left.
When Boynton’s 3-point attempt also went off the rim, Florida had one more close loss.
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