Mississippi State nearly came all the way back to win its SEC Tournament second round game against Florida, but the Gators had just enough to hang on.
No. 5 seed Florida (19-11) withstood a late rally from the 13th-seeded Bulldogs and won 71-67 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center to advance to the quarterfinals.
Rockdale graduate Breanna Richardson was plagued by foul trouble and played six minutes in the first half, but the freshman was on the court for the entire second half and finished just short of a double-double with nine points and eight rebounds for Mississippi State (19-13).
Kendra Grant hadn’t scored a point since the 14-minute mark, but the junior, who led the Starkville, Mississippi school with 14 points, knocked down two huge 3-pointers - one a four-point play after she hit a long three and was fouled, then another long ball off an inbounds pass from Jerica James that got Mississippi State to within 67-65 with 50 seconds remaining in the game.
Jaterra Bonds (game-high 18 points) and Cassie Peoples went 4 for 4 from the free-throw line over the final 22 seconds to help Florida advance to today’s 2:30 p.m. quarterfinal game against fourth-seeded Kentucky.
“A great win,” Florida coach Amanda Butler said. “Mississippi State is just a really tough team to play against. I’m just proud of (the Florida players) for the battle…really, really strong victory today for sure.”
Mississippi State trailed by 10 points before scoring six quick points - on a steal and nice jumper in the lane by point guard Katia May, a put back by Dominique Dillingham and Savannah Carter’s jumper that cut Florida’s lead to 52-48 with 11 1/2 minutes to play.
The upstart Bulldogs weren’t finished. Richardson had a put back, her second of the half, while Dillingham and James hit threes, the last of which put Mississippi State up 56-55 - it’s first lead since 14-13 - and forced a Florida timeout at the 7:39 mark.
Peoples gave the Gators the lead back almost immediately, and it turned out for good, hitting a short jumper and a 3-pointer, then Bonds’ lay up put Florida back up 62-56 with 6:17 to go. It was 66-58 when Grant drained her first three and was fouled at the 1:45 mark.
Richardson picked up two early fouls and sat for more than 10 minutes during the first half.
While the Conyers native was on the bench, Mississippi State took a brief lead at 14-13 on a bucket by Martha Alwal at the 12:51 mark.
It was all Gators after that. Bonds bookended a 10-0 run, starting with a lay up and giving Florida a 23-14 cushion on two free throws with just under 11 minutes to go in the half.
Grant hit two jumpers to help Mississippi State to pull to within 23-18, but Florida scored the next seven points over a two-minute stretch and led 30-18 at the 7:14 mark.
Richardson returned with just under seven minutes to play and later, was hit with a questionable third foul during a battle for a rebound, keeping the freshman from making much of an impact during the first 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, Florida hit 59 percent of its shots (16 of 27) and went into the locker room up 42-29.
Before the tournament began, Richardson was one of two former area players, along with Alabama’s Ashley Williams, to be named to the conference’s all-freshman team.
Williams had an outstanding first regular season for the Crimson Tide. The Alcovy graduate averaged 12.7 points and led the team in rebounding (6.5) and field goal percentage (50 percent) in 29 games. The 6-0 forward is the first Alabama player to make the all-freshman team since 2011.
Richardson averaged 9.1 points and 5.4 rebounds during the regular season, including averaging 10.7 points and shooting 44 percent from the field during league play.
Richardson followed the all-conference honor with a nice performance in Mississippi State’s first round win over Missouri Wednesday. The 6-1 forward hit 6 of her 11 field goal attempts for a 12-point night and added eight rebounds in the No. 13 seed’s 73-70 triumph.