The narrative being pushed this season by coaches and media alike is the strengthened depth in the SEC, 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).
The loss snapped a season-best six-game winning streak for the Gators.
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 Egor Koulechov and Jalen Hudson each scored 11.
Bruce Stevens led Ole Miss with 22 points and 6 boards while Deandre Burnett added 20, Markel Crawford scored 17 and the Rebels hit 22 of 26 free throws overall.
To encapsulate how tough and frustrating of 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, 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 instead awarded two free throws after review, hitting both to close it to two 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, the Gators then got a steal on the defensive end but Stone was called for an offensive foul.
Ole Miss closed it out from there. Breein Tyree made one of two free throws with 48.6 seconds on the clock, but Davis grabbed an offensive rebound and Tyree back to the line for two more makes and a 77-70 lead.
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