The narrative being pushed this season by coaches and media alike is the strengthened depth of SEC basketball, how most every conference opponent poses a true threat to most any other on the right day.
And sure enough, while Florida and Ole Miss were at opposite ends of the preseason league poll, it was the Rebels who dealt the Gators their first SEC loss Saturday, prevailing 78-72 in a back-and-forth duel in Oxford, Miss.
The teams combined for 13 ties and 11 lead changes before Ole Miss (10-7, 3-2 SEC), picked 10th in that preseason conference poll, pulled away down the stretch to defeat Florida (12-5, 4-1), which is expected to contend for the league title this year.
The loss snapped a season-best six-game winning streak for the Gators.
“All these games are difficult,” Florida coach Mike White said afterward. “You’ve got a talented team here with a veteran coach who’s won a million games, and we’ve got to approach the Ole Miss game as if it were Duke in the PK80 [tournament]. They’re all very, very difficult and they [were] at home as well. It’s the SEC and every opponent is prepared, every opponent’s got players. We’ve got to bring that edge. Not that we were flat — I’m not giving you that at all — but Ole Miss had more edge than we did.”
Forward Keith Stone scored a career-high for the second time in four games, dropping in 23 points (13 of 18 from the foul line) with 8 rebounds to lead Florida, while guards Egor Koulechov and Jalen Hudson each scored 11.
Bruce Stevens led Ole Miss with 22 points and 6 boards, Deandre Burnett added 20 points, Markel Crawford scored 17 and the Rebels hit 22 of 26 free throws overall and finished with a 44-35 rebounding advantage.
To encapsulate how tough and frustrating a day it was for Florida, the Gators surged to their largest lead of the game when back-to-back 3-pointers from Stone and Mike Okauru put them ahead 52-44 with a little less than 13 minutes remaining.
That lead was then entirely erased in less than two minutes as Ole Miss reeled off the next 8 points on 3s from Crawford and Burnett and a layup from Marcanvis Hymon to tie it.
The Gators would regain the lead two more times in this back-and-forth duel, but never for long.
To say either side ever had real control of the game would be an overstatement, but the Rebels were the ones applying the pressure down the stretch.
It was a 70-65 Ole Miss lead when Chris Chiozza grabbed a steal for Florida and fed it ahead to Stone for a fastbreak take to the rim, but Terence Davis delivered a key block for the hosts as the ball went off Stone and out of bounds.
After Davis missed on the other end, Chiozza took it to the basket himself on a quick layup the next time down court to cut the Gators’ deficit to 70-67 with a little more than 3 minutes to go.
Stone later hit one of two free throws to make it a two-point game at 70-68 with 2:27 left to play. And Hudson, after initially being called for an offensive foul that would have been his fifth and final, was awarded two free throws after review and made both to close it to 2 again at 72-70 with 1:46 on the clock.
But Florida just couldn’t close the gap.
Stevens scored at the other end to push it to 74-70, Chiozza missed a layup for Florida, then got a steal on the ensuing inbounds but Stone was called for an offensive foul.
Ole Miss closed it out from there. Breein Tyree made 1 of 2 free throws with 48.6 seconds on the clock, but Davis grabbed an offensive rebound and Tyree went back to the line for 2 more makes and a 77-70 lead to effectively seal the win.
Florida was one of just two teams, along with Auburn, unbeaten in SEC play entering the day.
While it wasn’t enough to make the difference Saturday, Stone’s performance was the latest in a string of encouraging games for the redshirt sophomore forward. Starting with a then-career-best 18 points at Texas A&M, he has now averaged 16 points and 6.8 rebounds over his last four games after averaging 5.8 PPG and 3.2 RPG through the first 13 games.
Unfortunately for the Gators, though, KeVaughn Allen remains lost on the offense end. The preseason All-SEC pick finished with 5 points on 2-of-9 shooting (1 of 6 from 3-point range) Saturday, and has scored 7 or fewer points in four straight games and five of the last six.
“He’s really shooting well in practice,” White said. “We do shooting drills every day where he’s knocking it down really consistently, he is. And talking to him — as you know, he’s a man of few words — but the feedback you get is he feels confident, he feels good about himself. I don’t know what it is, but if I was a betting man … I would bet that he’s going to have a big game here pretty soon. I was hoping it would be against the Rebels, but maybe the next one or two.”
The Gators will look to bounce back Wednesday night at home against Arkansas (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
NOTE: Reserve center Gorjok Gak, one of the Gators’ few healthy interior players, sustained a concussion in the loss.