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Florida Gators face Mississippi State on Friday with at-large bid possibly in the balance

The easy part is over: Florida 78, Auburn 69 on Thursday in Nashville in the first round of the Southeastern Conference tournament. Now comes the game the Florida Gators have failed to win in the previous two seasons -- the one that will earn them an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

That's the scenario for Friday's game against Mississippi State if you're one of the observers who thinks Florida needed to win two games in the SEC tournament to make the NCAA Tournament. Count me in that group. (In terms of making the NCAA Tournament, a win against pathetic Auburn did absolutely nothing to help Florida except keep hope alive.) Tipoff against Mississippi State is set for 7:30 p.m. in Nashville.

Mississippi State (21-10) is the SEC West's top-seeded team. After defeating Auburn, the Gators are now 7-0 this season against the SEC West. The Gators defeated the Bulldogs 69-62 early this season.

"[Mississippi State] is a tough team," Parsons said. "They're a really good team. Obviously, they watched our game tonight. We're just going to have to get back to the hotel and get some rest. We know it's going to be a tough challenge, but we're up for it. We know what [Jarvis Varnado] is capable of doing. The big thing for us is to keep defending and doing the physical plays, and offense will come."

On Thursday, Florida (21-11) looked impressive against an Auburn team that might have been playing for the job security of its coach, Jeff Lebo. Rumors are swirling around the SEC that Lebo might be out at Auburn after this season. The Tigers move into a new $90 million arena next season.

The Gators dominated Auburn inside and defensively UF held Tigers guard Tay Waller, AU's leading scorer, to zero points. Those were the keys to the game. The win snapped Florida's three-game losing streak to end the regular season. 

UF forward Alex Tyus led the Gators with 24 points. He scored 21 in UF's SEC tournament loss to Auburn last season. Chandler Parsons had 21, including 3 of 4 from three-point range. Vernon Macklin scored 10. Florida point guard Erving Walker was 0 of 4 from the field but did make 6 of 6 from the free-throw line and had six assists and only one turnover. As a team, Florida only had seven turnovers.

Freshman point guard Kenny Boynton Jr. entered the first round of the Southeastern Conference tournament with just two three-pointers in his last two games. He made three three-pointers on Thursday. Overall, Florida shot 46.7 percent (7 of 15) from behind the arc.

Auburn cut Florida's lead to five points with 1:40 left in the game when Boynton made his third three-pointer of the night. Parsons followed the three-pointer with a driving lay-up to put the game away. Earlier in the second half, Mississippi State cut Florida's lead to 42-41 before Boynton made a pair of three-pointers during a 8-0 Florida run.

-jo-

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