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Florida 104, Alabama 98: Gators stage epic comeback in double-overtime thriller

The Florida Gators were down, down bad. They tightened up and came for the crown.

NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators played perhaps their worst half of the entire 2019-20 season against Alabama on Saturday. Down by as many as 21, the Gators had to rally into halftime and get a buzzer-beating three from Andrew Nembhard just to trail by 14 at the break.

More than an hour and two overtime periods later, they had completed a school-record comeback and scored a 104-98 triumph — with the sort of breakthrough performance that could be a launching pad for Florida’s season.

The Gators struggled with nearly every aspect of the game early against the Crimson Tide, botching defensive coverages and sputtering in both full- and half-court offense while also missing the majority of their shots. And after an 11-11 start, Alabama would rip off 12-0 and 11-3 runs to get out to a 46-25 edge, thanks mostly to seven threes; only a 9-0 spurt from the Gators into halftime gave the home fans any hope at intermission.

But even though Florida extended that run to 15-0 after halftime, cutting the Crimson Tide lead to single digits, Alabama had plenty more points left to score, and would lead by 13 with 12 minutes to play.

Florida wasn’t done scoring, either. Gutsy defense and teeth-gritted scoring from Nembhard, Kerry Blackshear, Keyontae Johnson, and Scottie Lewis — who provided all but two points for the Gators over nearly the entirety of those final 12 minutes — would get the deficit to five points for the first time in the second half with just under two minutes to go, and a three-point play by Nembhard and a crucial three from Blackshear in the final minute slashed the lead to two with Alabama inbounding.

Then Noah Locke made the play of the game, streaking to a spot on the floor to intercept a John Petty inbounds pass that he laid in to tie the game at 83-83.

Alabama’s chance at the buzzer missed, sending Florida to overtime for the first time this year.

In the extra period, the Gators leaned even more heavily on the foursome that carried them down the stretch: Nembhard, Blackshear, Johnson, and Lewis scored 20 of Florida’s 21 points over the 10 surplus minutes, with a Locke free throw providing the only other notch.

And while Alabama hit threes to erase two of the three three-point leads Florida held in the first overtime and survived a Blackshear putback at the buzzer that was correctly ruled to be too late to count, the Gators finally turned back the Tide in the second extra session, responding to two more game-tying buckets by Alabama by scoring the game’s final six points at the free throw line and not allowing anything over the final 1:12 of play, securing a win as exhausting as it was exhilarating.

Blackshear (24 points and 16 rebounds) and Nembhard (a career-high 25 points and five assists) had arguably their best games as Gators; Lewis (17 points and 10 boards for his first double-double, and three big blocks) unquestionably did, and Johnson (10 points, 12 rebounds) was stunningly effective in minutes limited by foul trouble. Locke (18 points), Ques Glover (six points off the bench), and Omar Payne (four points) were the only other Gators to score.

And Florida needed all of that to survive the Tide, whose six double-figure scorers were led by Petty (19 points on 14 shots) and Kira Lewis (17 points on 25 shots), contrasting portraits of efficiency. Alabama’s 13 threes were also the most by any Florida opponent this year, and something that Florida’s relentless work in getting to the line late — the Gators shot just two more free throws than Alabama, 36 to 34, but made 30 to Alabama’s 23 — only barely blunted.

But given just how out of sorts Florida looked early, and just how easy it would have been to quit at any of many junctures in this game, this win will go down as an unforgettable one for anyone who watched — and has the potential, if Florida learns lessons from both its miscues and its successes, to be a turning point.