Florida 64, Alabama 52: Gators cut off Crimson Tide, critics with superb second half

USA TODAY Sports

Florida has been the target of more than a little criticism during its February swoon. The Gators answered that criticism on Saturday.

Florida trailed 45-37 at the under-12 timeout against Alabama in the O'Connell Center on Saturday, and all the stories seemed pre-written. Florida can't win close games. Florida can't win when its threes don't fall. Florida can't handle adversity. Florida crumbles in the clutch.

Kendrick Lamar performed at the O'Connell Center on Monday, and his set was significantly longer than the one he did last February as an opener for Drake, pulling as it did from his critically beloved good kid, m.A.A.d. city, which hadn't been released at this time last year.

Florida's 27-7 run to win a hard-fought game by a 64-52 margin against the Crimson Tide incinerated all of those stories — essentially, the Gators won this game with a different blueprint than the one the college basketball world has assumed they would use all year, and quoted the oddest song Kendrick performed.

Florida's been known as a three-happy team for years and years, but the Gators' rally to get back into the game was not a barrage of threes — Florida took just two after that under-12 timeout, and made neither. The Gators made just two of 13 on the day, likely their worst performance from three in many years.

Instead, Florida responded to Alabama's brilliant defense, which largely shut down Florida's perimeter attack, by stabbing repeatedly with drives. Casey Prather scored eight points in the final 12 minutes without taking a jumper, and after being held in check masterfully by the Crimson Tide for almost 30 minutes, the Gators got five combined layups and dunks down the stretch, and scored another 13 points on free throws.

Florida's inability to draw free throws has been a cause célèbre for media members on the Florida beat, and for good reason: The Gators had gotten out of balance, taking threes instead of pounding the ball inside, and had paid for it in three SEC road losses, getting only handfuls of free throws per night and missing them at alarming rates. That wasn't the case on Saturday: Florida took 26 free throws, and made 22.

Patient, persistent offense swung this game to Florida in the end, but the defense that has been so tremendous all year bought the offense the time necessary to be patient. After a Nick Jacobs lay-in to get it to 47-41, Florida allowed one Alabama field goal in the final 9:54 of play by keeping the ball away from the rim, contesting threes, and drawing charges. Allowing 47 points in 28 minutes is well below Florida's standards on defense this year, but allowing 54 in 40 is right in line with the Gators' suffocation of the SEC.

This was a tough win to earn, even if it ended up being a 12-point victory, and it was only not a close game if the final score is the only criterion for closeness: Florida, which has led by double digits for entire second halves at home all year, trailed by the largest margin it has dealt with in the O'Dome, and led by double digits for only the last 43 seconds. And before the Gators could make their comeback, Alabama had to make a 21-8 run to get to that 45-37 mark; certainly, that introduced adversity to the proceedings.

The response to it included a redemption of Florida's core, from Erik Murphy (15 points and eight rebounds with just one made three) to Kenny Boynton (13 points with just one made three) to Patric Young — whose nine points and three blocks don't seem like much out of context, removed from things like one huge sequence with a make on one end and a drawn charge on the other in the span of about 10 seconds.

It provided another great sign that Prather (10 points, nine rebounds in 24 minutes off the bench) can be all the bench Florida needs if Will Yeguete and Michael Frazier, who were both clearly limited in their returns, are slow to get back to full health. It featured the same old brilliance from Scottie Wilbekin, who is the SEC's best point guard because of his steadiness on offense and indefatigable defense, despite only getting one assist in a game like this. And it's notable for what it didn't feature from Mike Rosario, who missed all five of his threes, scored just six points, and had three turnovers.

Most of all, though, it was a repudiation of the thinking that wrote off Florida when it fell into that eight-point hole, the thinking that says Billy Donovan molds teams of perimeter shooters that cannot do the hard work that wins titles, writes about how the Gators (and other teams that dominate most foes) need close games to test their mettle, and believes Florida will fold and fall and fail when it matters most.

The song that Kendrick dropped into the middle of his setlist on Monday that no one save a few longtime fans knew was "Cut You Off," from his Overly Dedicated project in 2010, before he earned the national spotlight. This is its hook, in part:

I'ma cut you off
'Cause every time you come around
You be hollerin' that
"Whoop-de-whoop, blasé blah
He say, she say, oh my God!"
Shut the fuck up

After a win that will leave their critics without most of their usual retorts, that seems appropriate for these Gators. So does the parenthetical that follows "Cut You Off": To Grow Closer.

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