GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Alabama had an eight-point lead and all the momentum at No. 8 Florida.
Then the Crimson Tide went cold, a lengthy icy stretch that changed the game and possibly the top seeds in the Southeastern Conference tournament.
Casey Prather had 10 points and nine rebounds, most of them in the second half, and the Gators rallied from the second-half deficit to beat Alabama 64-52 on Saturday.
The Gators used a 15-0 run — fueled by Prather — to pull away from the Crimson Tide and remain unbeaten (14-0) at home.
“I think our guys showed that winning was important,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “But I thought Alabama outplayed us. They were more prepared than us. I thought their kids came in with a lot of energy, a lot of focus, a lot of passion. You’ve got to give them a lot of credit. They put themselves in a position to win and they could have very easily won that game.”
Erik Murphy led Florida (23-5, 13-3 SEC) with 15 points. Kenny Boynton added 13, and Scottie Wilbekin chipped in 11.
But there’s no doubt Prather was the key. He played relentless defense and was equally impressive on the other end. With Prather leading the way, Florida outscored Alabama 23-5 over the final 10 minutes of the game.
“I was definitely trying to bring energy because we looked a little dead offensively and defensively,” Prather said.
Trevor Releford led the Tide (19-10, 11-5) with 12 points. Trevor Lacey and Nick Jacobs added 11 points apiece.
Florida made just 2 of 13 shots from 3-point range, but made up for it by making 22 of 26 from the free-throw line.
Alabama was 4 of 10 from the charity stripe.
“We knew we had to do a good job guarding the ball, No. 1,” Tide coach Anthony Grant said. “But obviously we didn’t do a good enough job when you look at the number of times we fouled. ... We’re a team that averages 20 free throws plus a game; Florida was averaging 12 a game. It got flipped tonight. When you guard a team with the different weapons that they have, you’ve got to take a lot of things away. We weren’t able to take away the free-throw line today.”
It didn’t help that Alabama made just two baskets after taking a 45-37 lead with 12:23 remaining.
“You’ve got to be able to manufacture some offense,” Grant said. “We had opportunities that we let slip away.”
Missed shots, bad passes, charges, Alabama did a little bit of everything to give up the lead on the road. It was the complete opposite of what Alabama did right during a 14-4 run that put the Tide ahead.
“Defensively, we weren’t as locked in as we during that stretch,” Lacey said.
The Gators gladly took advantage en route to clinching a first-round bye in the SEC tournament. Florida can secure the No. 1 seed by winning one of its remaining two games or having Kentucky lose later Saturday at Arkansas.
Donovan cared little about those accomplishments after the game. He was more concerned about his team’s problems.
Florida used a 12-0 run to open up a double-digit lead early in the game, making this look like it would be another lopsided affair.
But the Gators stopped making shots and starting giving up baskets at every turn. It was concerning for Donovan because it’s the kind of emotional letdown he has tried to rid his team of the last two years.
Instead of moving the ball and getting everyone involved, the Gators started taking ill-advised shots and trying to do too much.
“We’ve deviated from who we are and we’ve got to get back to that,” Donovan said.
That played right into Alabama’s hands.
The Crimson Tide, known for disciplined and deliberate style, started dominating inside.
Releford followed a putback with a steal and a layup. Lacey hit a 3-pointer following another swipe. Rodney Cooper scored on a tip-in, one of Alabama’s 13 offensive rebounds. And Releford added two more layups that put the Tide ahead by eight.
Donovan called timeout, benched Mike Rosario in favor of Prather, and pleaded with his team to play better.
The Gators responded, showing the kind of resiliency that could come in handy in the postseason.
The Tide, meanwhile, faded.
“On the road, especially in an environment like this, you have to be able to make the big plays,” Grant said.
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