Gators stun Bama in SEC opener

TUSCALOOSA, AL — There are still 15 games left on the Southeastern Conference schedule so one game won’t determine the fate of the Florida Gators. Florida’s 90-83 win over Alabama Tuesday night is just the first of a long SEC grind for the Gators but it’s a solid start for a young team that was 0-1 outside the state of Florida going into the game.

Getting off to a good start in the SEC can only do wonders for the confidence of Billy Donovan’s young Gators, who improved to 14-2 on the season. They got the win Tuesday night by making great halftime adjustments and outplaying Alabama on both ends of the floor after the intermission.

It was the Gators’ ability to shut down Alabama from the three-point line that provided the defensive difference. Alabama went 6-13 from distance in the first half but the Gators went zone and still managed to clamp down in the second half. Alabama’s hot first half shooters went stone cold in the second half, hitting only two of their 13 three-point attempts.

And while Alabama struggled to find the range on the deep shots, the Gators were just warming up. Florida connected on seven three-pointers in the second half and finished the game 11-22.

The three-point bombs were a necessity for the Gators because Alabama had a decisive edge on the inside with 6-9, 260-pound junior center Richard Hendrix, third in the SEC in scoring and first in rebounding. Hendrix put up 24 points, 16 rebounds, three blocked shots and two steals but it was his inconsistency from the foul line that cost Alabama dearly. He was only 12-21 from the foul line.

Alabama also got a career game from Alonzo Gee, a 6-6 high riser from Palm Beach Gardens who scored 32 points and grabbed eight rebounds. Gee, who scored 17 points in the first half when he went 3-3 from beyond the arc, got his points in the second half but he cooled considerably on the three-point shots, hitting just 1-6.

Gee and Hendrix allowed Alabama to dominate the final seven minutes of the first half. Alabama twice held 10-point leads but the Gators just wouldn’t go away. Chandler Parsons, who played limited minutes due to the after-effects of the flu, got his only two points on a hustle play with 3:54 remaining in the first half to break an 8-0 Bama run that had given the Tide a 38-28 lead.

Alabama went on a 6-0 run in the final two minutes to regain control by a 47-37 margin but freshman Jai Lucas gave Florida a real shot of momentum when he nailed a three-pointer at the buzzer to close that gap to 47-40 at the half.

The Gators fed off that surge of adrenalin, outscoring Alabama 6-1 in the first minute of the second half. When Lucas hit a three with 19:05 left in the game, it cut the Alabama margin to 48-46, the closest Florida had been since the 8:08 mark in the first half.

Alabama regained its composure to go back ahead by six points but that’s when the Gators took control of the game. Florida’s zone defense started producing stops on the defensive end. Alabama couldn’t stop Florida’s high pick and roll with a man-to-man scheme so the Tide tried to go zone. Back-to-back threes by Walter Hodge and Lucas gave Florida a 61-59 lead with 13:29 remaining in the game, the Gators’ first lead of the game.

A Hodge from the right corner with 9:09 left and a Calathes three from the top of the key with 8:44 left gave the Gators a 71-66 lead but Alabama countered with five straight points from Gee to tie the game at 71-71 with 7:04 remaining.

At that point the Gators played like a mature, battle-tested team. The young guys looked pretty grown up on that 11-0 run that put the Gators in front for good. Calathes got it started with a deep three with 6:34 left in the game and he added a layup 20 seconds later after a Dan Werner steal at midcourt. Calathes missed a three with 5:40 left and Werner tried to tip it in twice, but freshman Alex Tyus rebounded and made good on the third try from underneath to make it 78-71. Hodge closed out the run with a driving layup over Hendrix and a pair of free throws with 4:02 left in the game.

For all the maturity the Gators showed on that run, they showed that they are still young with plenty to learn over the final four minutes. Florida made it an adventure with some ill-advised shots, turnovers and missed free throws but the Gators never relinquished the lead even when Alabama applied the pressure.

A Hodge layup after a spectacular 30-foot baseball-style bounce pass from Calathes broke an almost three minute scoring drought by the Gators and hiked the lead to 84-79 with 1:13 left in the game. That was the last shot the Gators hit from the field.

Alabama crept back to within two after Calathes hit one of two free throws. Calathes hit the first of two foul shots with 24.3 seconds left to stretch the Florida lead to 86-83. Werner came down with the rebound on the missed second shot and he was fouled immediately. He hit both shots to make it a five-point game with 22.4 seconds left. Lucas put the finishing touches on the game with a pair of free throws with 4.6 seconds remaining.

Calathes led the Gators with 21 points, seven rebounds and nine assists. He was 3-5 from the three-point stripe, as did Lucas, who scored a career-high 19 points and handed out three assists. Hodge, who hit all three of his three-pointers and 6-7 from the field, finished with 17 points.

Werner, who had to play long stretches in the post at center because of foul problems for Marreese Speights, had an outstanding all-around game. He scored 12 points, grabbed seven rebounds, handed out three assists and came up with three steals.

The Gators shot 50.9 percent from the field (29-57) and an impressive 21-26 from the foul line (80.8 percent). The Gators held Alabama to 44.1 percent from the field (30-68) and 8-26 from the three-point line (30.8 percent).

Although Alabama had more size, the Gators held their own on the boards. Even with Hendrix playing a dominating role on the inside, the Gators were only outrebounded 37-36.

Florida is at home Saturday to face Auburn in a 12 noon start at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. Alabama (11-5, 0-1 SEC) travels to Arkansas Sunday.