(8) Florida Gators basketball (16-16) earned a decisive 69-61 victory over the (9) Alabama Crimson Tide (18-14) on Thursday afternoon, advancing to the second round of the 2015 SEC Tournament at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee.
Florida head coach Billy Donovan improved to 10-0 all-time against former Gators assistant and Alabama head coach Anthony Grant as UF ensured itself a difficult second-round match-up against (1) Kentucky.
OnlyGators.com breaks down Thursday’s action with eight quick-hitters:
It was over when: With Florida’s 11-point lead cut to seven, sophomore point guard Kasey Hill attempted a would-have-been-clutch steal, though Alabama corralled the loose ball and Rodney Cooper drove it to the hoop. Gators redshirt junior forward Alex Murphy stepped in Cooper’s way and drew the offensive foul, sending the Tide’s leading scorer to the bench with five on the afternoon and three minutes left in the game. Redshirt junior F Dorian Finney-Smith drained a three on the ensuing possession, pushing UF’s lead back to 10.
Significant stretch: Finney-Smith and freshman F Devin Robinson drained back-to-back threes, negating an Alabama stretch and giving the Gators a nine-point lead at 49-40 with 12 minutes left. UF would extend that advantage to a game-high 11 points just minutes later. Robinson scored 10 points in the contest, hitting 5-of-6 attempts from the charity stripe.
Prominent players: Finney-Smith led the way for the Gators with a game-high 23 points on 7-of-14 shooting (4-of-9 from three). He also added a game-high 11 boards, registering a double-double, and proved to be an irreplaceable piece of a UF team that needed some consistency in the contest. “I just wanted to come out, since the suspension, pick up my energy,” Finney-Smith said after the game. “I got the players on the team, they did a good job of supporting me through tough times, and that’s why I just want to come out and play with that energy for these guys, play for these guys.”
First half focus: A 9-0 run by Alabama – as Florida went without a field goal for a span of four minutes – put the Tide up on the Gators 17-9 early in the contest. It took a while for UF to respond, but a 12-2 run including back-to-back threes by redshirt junior guard Eli Carter moved the Gators ahead 27-25. Florida was unable to take advantage of Alabama despite the Tide going 8:24 without a field goal and 5:15 without a single point, but the Gators did excel down the stretch by scoring six-straight points and taking a 33-29 lead into the break.
Standout stats: The Gators were not efficient from the charity stripe but did make an earnest effort to get to the foul line, hitting 14-of-20 attempts over the course of the afternoon. Where Florida really dominated was off the glass, outrebounding Alabama 35-24 despite the Tide outscoring the Gators 28-18 in the paint.
What it means: Thursday’s contest was a must-win for Florida if it wanted to make a case for an NIT berth and give itself one more chance at taking down the best team in the nation in Kentucky.
Next up: The Gators advanced to the second round of the SEC Tournament, where it will take on the No. 1-seed Wildcats. UK will look to stay undefeated while defeating UF thrice in a single season.
Everything else: Florida committed five fouls on shots Alabama made in the contest … Carter posted 11 points on 4-of-10 shooting but was inefficient in the second half … freshman PG Chris Chiozza scored seven points, grabbed five boards and dished a game-high four assists … junior guard Michael Frazier II went 1-for-10 from the field, though his lone basket – a three – came at an opportune time … UF led for 26:29 of the 40 minutes; there were four lead changes and six ties
Friendly face: After Thursday’s win, which vaulted Donovan to 10-0 all-time over Grant, he defended his former assistant’s coaching job with Alabama, telling the Crimson Tide athletic department that it would be a mistake to let him go.
“I don’t think I’m biased. I’ve been around the game for a long time. I don’t think that people have any idea how great of a coach Anthony Grant is, and I saw it firsthand,” Donovan began.
“I would say that the one thing that I respect about Anthony is he took over a very challenging and difficult situation. He had a couple of very talented players that really kind of went through some disciplinary problems. He’s obviously battling with some injuries right now. He had a really good player that transferred out. I think Anthony’s been playing catch up a lot. I think that in terms of X’s and O’s, coaching, recruiting, all those kind of things, he’s phenomenal. He’s one of the best coaches I’ve been around. …
“I would tell you, as a parent, there’s not a coach in the country I would want my son to play for [more] than Anthony Grant. And you know what? Even if they did not have a winning season or he didn’t have a successful four years there, him becoming a man, as a father, would be a lot more important than if he won a lot of games, he cut down some nets. … If people are upset with the outcomes, that they should have won more, I get it. But you’re not going to tell me that, as a guy, that those kids are not better off for playing for Anthony Grant.
“So, I think if Anthony stays, doesn’t stay, they let him go, I think it’s the biggest mistake. Let’s put it this way: Alabama better hope he comes back, that’s what I would say.”