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Saturday March 2, 2013Gators Erupt Down the Stretch, Rally for Huge Win Over Alabama

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Given the magnitude of the stakes and the decisive circumstances, you probably would have thought Florida coach Billy Donovan would have relished his team's stirring comeback Saturday and bare-knuckled 64-52 defeat of Alabama.

And you would have been wrong.

"There were a rash of emotions in that game," Donovan sighed afterward. "I was really, really, really, really disappointed in our team for a good portion of our game."

Really?

Really.

Donovan certainly acknowledged his team's mettle in rallying from an eight-point deficit and, somehow, evaporating the orange-and-blue cloud of lethargy that hovered over the O'Connell Center floor for nearly 30 minutes before an eruption -- seemingly from nowhere -- sealed a huge win with even bigger Southeastern Conference ramifications.

But his takeaway from the afternoon was more about how the Gators (23-5, 13-3) played before outscoring the Crimson Tide (19-11, 11-5) by a 27-7 count over the final 11 minutes.

"I thought our team was emotionally drained," said Donovan, who had his full rotation back got a combined one rebound and no points from forward Will Yeguete (out seven games after knee surgery) and guard Michael Frazier (one with a concussion) in their first games back from injuries. "I thought we were exhausted. I thought we were a step slow. I thought we were distracted. I thought we became easily frustrated."

Ultimately, though, they were victorious.

Credit backup forward Casey Prather for providing a jolt off the bench in scoring eight of 10 points in those final frantic and fantastic minutes when UF erased a 45-37 lead -- its largest deficit at home this season -- to remain perfect in 14 O'Dome dates.

"We just had to keep playing, keep pushing," said senior forward Erik Murphy, who led his team with 15 points to go with eight rebounds and two blocked shots. "We knew this game was going to be a grind-it-out game."

For Donovan, it was more like a grind-your-teeth game.

The Gators fell back by eight points by letting the Tide control tempo, the backboards and all things in the paint for three-quarters of the contest. UF, meanwhile, was stone-cold from the 3-point line (2-for-13 for the game), disconnected on defense and losing the hustle plays.

"We were dead-legged, slow, [like] in quick sand," Donovan said. "No one was home mentally. I can't put my finger on it."

Eventually, the Gators figured out some things; like realizing it wasn't their day from long distance and went from hoisting long ones in exchange for stuff around the block.

Good decision.

It started when Prather drove the lane and baited center Patric Young's man to help to commit on defense. Prather arched a lob toward the basket that Young slammed and, just like that, the Gators had the attention of the 11,624 in the house.

"I think we were trying to feed off the crowd the whole game, but we didn't give them very much to cheer about," Young said. "Then we picked it up."

An Alabama miss got Florida out in transition. UF guard Kenny Boynton (13 points, 3 assists) drove the lane, but missed the shot. Prather was there to clean up with a stick-back that cut the lead to four. More crowd noise. Lots of it.

After Bama forward Nick Jacobs scored in the post, Prather made two free throws and right then everybody in the house should have known the Tide (pardon the pun) was about to turn. Prather had made 27.3 percent of his free throws in SEC play. Those two cut the lead to four again at 9:38 and -- after a old-time 3-point play from Scottie Wilbekin -- two more from Prather at 7:46 gave the Gators a one-point lead that only swelled from there.

Fifteen unanswered points over nearly seven minutes.

"Things went their way," Alabama coach Anthony Grant said.

From there, Florida did something it had not been able to do this season: close out an opponent with made shots and big stops down the stretch. And free throws, also. Coming into the Gators, the Gators were last from the line in SEC play at 63.8 percent. Against the Tide, UF knocked down 22 of 26 (84.6 percent), including all 13 in the second half.

Finally, a finish.

"We needed that," Boyton said after UF hit 48 percent from the floor after halftime and held the Tide to just 10 field goals and 37 percent after the break. "We need to win as many tough games as possible before March. When we have tough games we have to come out on top because it does nothing but give us preparation for a situation in the NCAA Tournament, when there will not be a lot of blowouts. I think this was a game we needed."

It was not the game Donovan wanted; not with the SEC and NCAA tournament right around the corner.

Afterward, the UF coach huddled privately with his players -- no assistants, no managers, no support staff -- and tried to process what he had just watched and get some answers as to why his team would play so out of character with so much at stake.

Wilbekin said he was tired. Yeguete said he was nervous about his return. Others didn't know what to say -- and they could only shrug as to why a team averaging 15.7 assists -- and with hallmark traits for playing unselfishly -- finished with just seven assists.

"We don't have guys who can make plays on their own. We just don't. We have to rely on each other," Donovan said. "When we don't play the right way, we're not a very good team. We're not."

The Gators have four days to rediscover the team they were not so long ago before Vanderbilt comes calling for Boynton, Murphy and Mike Rosario's senior-night sendoff Wednesday, and a chance to wrap up the regular-season SEC title outright.

"To me, the SEC championship is a byproduct of doing things the right way," Donovan said. "We've deviated from who we are. We've got to get back to that."

 

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