GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The University of Florida men’s basketball team finally faced a little competition in the Southeastern Conference.
Just a little, though.
Erik Murphy scored 19 points and was instrumental on the defensive end, helping the No. 4 Gators beat 16th-ranked and short-handed University of Mississippi 78-64 Saturday night.
Murphy made 7 of 8 shots, including 5 of 6 from 3-point range, and added six rebounds and four assists. He also took a charge, had a steal, blocked two shots and altered several more.
It was easily his most complete game in four seasons.
“It’s something I’m always trying to get better at,” Murphy said of his defense. “It’s something that I’m working on all the time with the coaching staff. With my lack of athleticism and foot speed, I’ve got to be smarter than most people defensively. I’ve got to use my basketball IQ and just try to play smarter.”
Pat Young added 13 points and 12 rebounds for the Gators (18-2, 8-0 SEC), who won their 10th consecutive game. Mike Rosario (14 points) and Scottie Wilbekin (13) also reached double figures.
Kenny Boynton had nine points and 10 assists, just shy of his first double-double. Boynton and Wilbekin combined for 17 assists and four turnovers, one of the biggest differences in the game.
Their defense was right up there, too.
“This is my seventh Florida team to play. One of those was the national championship team that had NBA lottery picks on it,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “I don’t even remember a Florida team guarding with that intensity. I was really impressed with the way they defended.”
Marshall Henderson, the Southeastern Conference’s leading scorer, led the Rebels (17-4, 6-2) with 25 points on 8-of-15 shooting. Henderson was 7 of 11 from behind the arc, hitting several shots with defenders in his face.
“I think they will contend for the national championship,” Henderson said of the Gators. “We have seen how they have been blowing people out. They executed perfectly. … I see them being No. 1 the country by the end of the season.”
The Gators won their first seven conference games by an average of 28.3 points, and this one looked as though it would be another rout — but Ole Miss kept rallying from 20-point deficits.
Marshall had a lot to do with it.
Even though Wilbekin and Boynton guarded him tight most of the night, he found ways to get off shots. Florida led 35-15 with about six minutes to go in the first half, but Henderson drained consecutive 3-pointers that capped a 10-0 run for the Rebels.
“He got nothing easy,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “He’s shooting double-pumpers in. He can have all those he wants. Scottie did a great job on him. Give him credit because he made some really, really hard shots.”
With the Gators up 60-39 in the second half, Murphy Holloway drove the lane to start a 13-3 run. Henderson also scored in the spurt.
Still, there was little the Rebels could do to slow down Florida, which shot 51.6 percent from the field, including 11 of 29 from 3-point range. The Gators also had 23 assists on 32 baskets.
Making matters worse for the Rebels was playing without reserves Nick Williams (foot) and Aaron Jones (knee). Both were injured in an 87-74 loss to the University of Kentucky on Tuesday.
“We had to go with some new guys and get as many minutes as we could out of them,” Kennedy said.
The Rebels came in looking for their first win over a top-five team since knocking off the fifth-ranked Gators in the 2001 SEC tournament.
Instead, they lost consecutive games for the first time this season.
Holloway finished with 15 points and seven rebounds for the Rebels, who had no other players reach double figures.
Off to its best SEC start since opening 11-0 in 2007, Florida has its highest ranking in nearly six years and likely will move up in the AP poll next week.
Defense has been the key to the team’s success, though it’s also coming against a watered-down league.
This, though, was the toughest test.
Ole Miss came in as the league’s top-scoring team, averaging 80 points. The Rebels had 39 with 11:51 remaining in the game. The shot 38.2 percent, were 7 of 17 from behind the arc and finished with five assists and 13 turnovers.
“This was our toughest game by far,” Wilbekin said. “They didn’t make it easy on us. We had to come out and play our best basketball. They had a lot of different weapons and we just had to try and shut them down.”