Florida 78, Alabama 69: Gators pull away after turning back Tide

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Florida did itself few favors on defense against Alabama on Saturday. But the Gators were so good on offense (and in the second half) that it hardly mattered.

This was the coda to that Game Thread/preview I wrote for Florida's 78-69 win over Alabama:

I seriously doubt that there will be all that much new to say, unless Trevor Releford has the day of his life.

Releford basically did have that game, at least through the first half, in which he lit up the Gators for 16 of Alabama's 36 points en route to a 36-36 halftime tie.

But the Gators we've seen outlast and pull away from other teams all year did the same thing again in Saturday's second half, limiting Releford to just seven more points, en route to their 15th straight victory, and 29th straight win in the O'Connell Center. And though I don't have much new to say, it reinforced something I've been thinking for a while.

All five Florida starters scored in double figures, with Scottie Wilbekin pumping in 16 points to lead the Gators and Will Yeguete tying a season high with 12 points, all coming in the first half. Casey Prather got back into double figures, scoring 15 points and grabbing six rebounds, and Patric Young managed 11 points on just four shots.

While they scored more than 70 points for the first time in seven games since a 72-50 whipping of Georgia, though, the Gators had an off day on defense, allowing 1.10 points per possession to the Tide, who came in with just three performances at or above that mark in SEC play. Releford's superb shooting (7-for-10, 4-for-6 from three) set the standard for Alabama, which made 60.9 percent of its shots in the first half, then "cooled" to "just" 55.0 percent for the game by making 47.1 percent of its shots in the second period. Florida did manage to limit 'Bama's damage from deep — the Tide went 1-for-4 from distance in the second half after being 5-for-7 in the first — but Alabama compensated on the line, making 16 of its 19 second-half free throws.

Florida was so good on offense on this day — scoring 1.24 points per possession, by far its new high in SEC play this season, and making 62.0 percent of its shots — that that lack of defensive efficiency didn't matter all that much. Florida kept to its strengths, and pounded the Tide underneath, with Yeguete, Young, and Prather combining to make 17 of their 23 shots, and Chris Walker chipping in two makes on three shots off the bench. The Gators built a 15-point lead with over eight minutes to go by going on 11-0 and 8-2 runs in the second half's first 12 minutes, and Alabama couldn't do much more than chip away at it.

That ability to win left-handed, by simply executing well enough on offense to beat a hot team on a day when the defense isn't able to do much, is a trait the 2012-13 Gators that dominated the SEC didn't quite have in their DNA — they developed the ability, but never fully internalized it. This team seems to have that trait, and the resilience and calm and, yes, heart, that come with it: I've called these Gators "the ones we've been waiting for" on Twitter at points in the last two games, wins against good SEC teams that required a little fortitude in tricky situations down the stretch to prevail.

Appearances can be deceiving, of course, and "being clutch" or "having heart" are largely subjective determinations of observers, usually based heavily recency bias. But the subjective determination of this observer, and of many more prominent ones, is that this Florida team is clutch and has heart.

Over the next week, in the two toughest games left on their SEC schedule — road showdowns at Tennessee and Kentucky — the Gators will get to either confirm or contradict that perception.

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