So much of the Mississippi State men’s basketball team’s offense flows through Iverson Molinar. It’s his scoring, first and foremost. But his ability to drive and kick — or dish the ball to a big man — sets him apart in the SEC, and the country, as one of the top guards offensively.
Florida’s well aware of Molinar’s impact. So the Gators sought to limit his presence, either keeping the ball out of his hands or doubling him in key moments so those lanes to drive closed and the passes were hard to come by. Florida gambled on Mississippi State’s dependence on Molinar — and coach Mike White won.
The Gators were without their best player, forward Colin Castleton, due to a shoulder injury sustained in Tuesday’s practice. But in a way, the Bulldogs were without their best player, too. Molinar’s scoring output dried up, leading to Mississippi State’s 80-72 loss Wednesday night in Gainesville, Florida.
"Their goal was to try to get the ball out of Iverson's hands," Bulldogs coach Ben Howland said. "And we need other guys to be able to step up and do a good job handling the ball when he doesn't have it."
Even this early in the season, the matchup had NCAA Tournament implications. In ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s latest projections for March Madness, both Mississippi State (12-5, 3-2 SEC) and Florida (11-6, 2-3) were considered part of the last four teams to make the field.
After a resume-boosting win against Alabama on Saturday, the Bulldogs took a step back Wednesday. It was an opportunity for another Quad 1 win, but even with Castleton missing, Mississippi State couldn’t capitalize.
"We let a great opportunity with the ball up eight with less than eight (minutes) to go slip away," Howland said. "We can't afford to do that."
Adapting without Castleton
Much of the pregame worry for Howland revolved around Castleton, the 6-foot-11 forward who’s leading the team with 15.4 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. But after his injury, the Gators’ primary threat was out.
That absence forced Florida into a small-ball lineup, giving Mississippi State an advantage in the paint.
But while the Bulldogs dominated down low — scoring 34 points in the paint compared to 20 from the Gators — the efforts beyond the arc caused all the difference. When Mississippi State upset Alabama, the Crimson Tide knocked down just 27.6% of their 3-pointers, which helped the Bulldogs to weather a 12.5% shooting performance from beyond the arc.
Florida shot better from deep than Alabama did, and the size advantage wasn’t tilted in Mississippi State’s favor enough to overcome the Gators’ 10-for-24 3-point shooting and Anthony Duruji’s 22 points.
"Duruji, he just, man," guard Shakeel Moore said. "At the end of the day, they hit shots down the stretch, but I feel like at the same time, we had some minor mistakes, turnovers at the end, and that's what really hurt us."
A muted Molinar
In the last two wins against Georgia and Alabama, Molinar carried much of Mississippi State’s offensive firepower. He combined for 52 points and 11 assists during the two games, becoming the SEC’s player of the week.
When the Bulldogs needed that offensive outlet Wednesday, though, Molinar was more muted. He was held to two points in the second half, and while he chipped in several dishes, his impact was limited.
Florida decided to double team Molinar in key situations, and its insistence to keep Molinar from having the ball put Mississippi State’s offense in a jam. The turnovers picked up, the offense slowed down, the lead flipped in Florida’s favor.
"We were sticking the ball on one side too long," Moore said. "We weren't moving it. And honestly, they were speeding us up, and we should've kept composure."
His first — and only — points of the second half came with 47 seconds left. They were too little, too late.
"We've got to get more balance in our scoring," Howland said. "Like, Garrison (Brooks) only taking three shots is crazy. He's got to take more shots than that. He has to be aggressive and look to shoot when he gets the ball."
In what was most emblematic of Molinar’s off-kilter second half, Molinar — whose 88.6% free-throw shooting is second best in the SEC — missed the front end of a one-and-one late in the second half. Moments later, forward Tolu Smith missed one of two free throws, giving Mississippi State its first points in just under five minutes.
As the Bulldogs missed five straight shots, Florida hit five of its seven attempts, building a lead it wouldn’t lose. Mississippi State still shot 50% in the second half, but its points per possession dropped to 0.912 in the frame, with 10 turnovers and 11 fouls in the half hurting the chances.
"When your opponent takes 30 foul shots, it's kind of hard to beat them," Howland said. "Ten turnovers in the second half, and too many fouls."
This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Florida beats Mississippi State basketball: Iverson Molinar struggles