Sometimes a late-game substitution can make all the difference.
That was the case on Saturday afternoon at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center in Gainesville, FL when head coach Billy Donovan inserted junior forward Casey Prather into the game with 11:49 left and saw the No. 6/8 Florida Gators (23-5, 13-3 SEC) erupt on a 27-7 game-ending scoring stretch to pull off a 64-52 come-from-behind victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide (19-10, 11-5 SEC).
Down eight points with 12:23 left in the contest, Florida looked prepared to settle for its third loss in four games but instead turned on the jets when Prather brought a boost of energy to the court and scored eight points as part of a 19-2 run that gave the Gators a nine-point lead with three minutes to play.
“He was the only guy who had a level of energy,” Donovan said.
Florida scored 15-straight points to jump ahead of Alabama and outscored the Crimson Tide 8-2 down the stretch to end the contest with its biggest margin of the game.
Senior F Erik Murphy started with the hot hand for UF as he scored nine of his team’s first 15 points and led the Gators on a 12-0 run to give them a solid 19-8 lead with 12:42 left in the first half. He finished with a game-high 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting, adding eight rebounds and two blocks.
Alabama answered Florida’s hot start by going on a 10-2 run of its own over the next five minutes to cut its deficit to three points. The Gators wound up going nearly seven minutes without a field goal as the Crimson Tide got within a single point with less than two minutes to play until the break. UF, however, pushed its lead back to three points before both teams headed to the locker room.
Florida’s offensive lull continued into the second half with Alabama exploding on a 20-6 scoring stretch to take its eight-point lead with less than 13 minutes to play. The Crimson Tide forced four turnovers and grabbed three offensive rebounds over the momentum-shifting stretch.
The Gators – despite going 2-for-13 from three in the contest and being outscored in the paint (30-34), off the bench (10-19) and on second chances (12-14) – hunkered down when it mattered the most. Florida wound up with a 33-31 rebounding advantage despite trailing in that category most of the game and scored a season-high 22 points off 26 free throws (84.6 percent).
Senior guard Kenny Boynton (1,940 points) moved into second on the Gators’ career scoring list using his 13 points to vault him past Andrew Moten (1,930). His three made field goals also pushed him to 635 for his career ahead of Udonis Haslem (633) for seventh on that list, and his six made free throws moved him into the top 10 in school history in that category. He also registered a team-high three assists on Saturday.
Prather finished just shy of a double-double with 10 points and nine rebounds. He also played spectacular defense while on the court and was a big boost for Florida with junior F Will Yeguete (knee) and freshman G Michael Frazier II (concussion, back) still limited despite returning from injuries.
Junior point guard Scottie Wilbekin chipped in 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting, and junior center Patric Young was 3-for-6 from the field and 3-for-4 from the charity stripe for nine points to go along with four boards.
Donovan improved to 5-0 against former assistant and Alabama coach Anthony Grant.
The Gators clinched a bye (top-four seed) in the 2013 SEC Tournament with their victory on Saturday. Florida can sure-up at least a share of the SEC regular season title with one more victory or a Kentucky loss. UF holds a one-game lead on UK in the standings, but Kentucky has three games left to play including a season finale against its long-time rivals on March 9 at noon.
Florida will next take the court on Wednesday as it hosts Vanderbilt for Senior Night in the O’Dome. The Gators are looking to go undefeated at home on the season (currently 14-0) and will have the opportunity to do so in an 8 p.m. game set to air live on SEC Network affiliates (check your local listings).
Photo Credit: Phil Sandlin/Associated Press