No Panic! Gators Rally To Win From 18 Down

If you didn’t know better, you would have thought the number one team in the nation was wearing crimson jerseys with Alabama on the front. It was 22-4, barely seven minutes into the game and Alabama was playing like a team on a mission, which is the way the number one team is supposed to play. Only Alabama wasn’t the number one team. Number one is Florida and early on, the Gators were no-shows.

Good teams fold and crumble when they get smoked in the first seven minutes the way the Gators did Wednesday night. Even most great teams have a problem withstanding that kind of barrage, but this isn’t your every day, normal great team. This is the kind of team that can be within an inch of its breaking point, dig in its heels and decide enough is enough. This is a team that can will its way back into a game that 99.9 percent of the teams in America would lose in a blowout. This is a team that is so good it can stop the bleeding, fight its way back to even and then have enough left in the tank to win going away. We saw it a couple of weeks ago when Vanderbilt came to town (11-point halftime deficit). We saw it again against Alabama.

A team capable of pulling off turnarounds like that is one that will never panic. Now, were the Gators concerned when Alabama couldn’t miss and they couldn’t find the ocean from the end of the pier? Absolutely. They knew they had dug themselves a pretty deep hole and they understood just how much work it was going to take just to get back to even, but panic? Absolutely not.

“You can’t really panic,” said Corey Brewer, who contributed 16 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals in Florida’s 76-67 come-from-behind victory over Alabama, a win that had a Stephen C. O’Connell Center crowd of 12,598 on its feet and roaring the entire second half. “You know you got to play better but you don’t panic.”

Maybe you don’t panic when you’re down 18 so early and nothing is going right, but you do look around and wonder who are these guys wearing Florida jerseys?

“I’m like dang, who are we?” said Taurean Green, who scored all 20 of his points in the second half. “We couldn’t make any shots and they’re making tough shots.”

Alabama made 10 of its first 12 shots while Florida was still trying to figure out how to have a possession without tossing the ball away. The Gators turned the ball over the first three times they had the ball and they missed their first four shots before Al Horford got a layup for Florida’s first points with 15:41 left in the half. Alabama hit five of its first six shots and had an 11-0 lead before Horford broke the ice for the Gators.

And it got worse before it got better.

The low point of the evening is when Brandon Hollinger and Ronald Steele made consecutive three-pointers. It was 22-4 with 13:14 remaining and that really had the Gators wondering if Alabama was ever going to miss.

That is also the point in the game where the Gators drew their line in the dirt and pretty much said no more. They fought their way back to an 11-point deficit at the half (42-31) without a lot of help from the outside and with a little help inside from an unexpected source.

The outside just wasn’t there for Florida in the first half. The Gators were 1-10 from the three-point stripe and Taurean Green was 0-5 and scoreless. Alabama, meanwhile, which came into the game averaging 5.8 three-pointers in conference play, was 5-12.

“We went 1-10 from the three-point line,” said Coach Billy Donovan. “We couldn’t make a shot. They were 5-12, we were 1-10. We were down 11 and they had made four more three-point shots and we had turned the ball over our first three possessions.”

The unexpected source on the inside was freshman Marreese Speights, who didn’t play in Florida’s win over Kentucky in Lexington Saturday night.

“I told Marresse on Monday don’t get discouraged, don’t get down because the team we’re getting ready to play is the perfect game for you to play in and you’ve got to be ready to go,” said Donovan.

Speights got his chance with 7:15 remaining in the first half. Over the next 3:22 he scored six points, grabbed a rebound, blocked a shot and altered two others. He also got a layup with 54 seconds remaining in the half that brought the Gators back within eight, 39-31, the closest they had been since the 17:18 mark.

At the half, Donovan wasn’t nearly as upset with the offense — 40.7 percent first half shooting and 10 percent on threes — as he was the defense. After that hot start, Alabama cooled off a bit but still finished the half at 51.6 percent.

“I was much more concerned they were shooting 51 percent against our defense,” said Donovan, who told his team that “We’re not going to shoot the ball great every night and we can’t rely on our offense and here’s the perfect example so let’s get some stops.”

That things were different in the second half was evident on the first possession when Brewer picked Alonzo Gee cleanly off the dribble. Even though there would be an even trade of baskets for the first four minutes of the half, it was clear that Florida had picked up the defensive intensity.

A jump shot by Joakim Noah with 15:24 remaining got the Gators on a 6-0 run to cut the lead to five (50-45), and after Alabama countered with a driving bank shot by Jemareo Davidson, Florida responded with six straight points including two straight driving layups by Green to cut the margin to 52-51. What made the run possible was Florida’s defense. The Gators got three straight stops on the defensive end to fuel the run and raise the decibel level in the O-Dome from merely deafening to Motley Crue concert level.

“When you have a crowd like this you dive for a loose ball and the whole crowd goes crazy,” said Noah. “You do one thing good and you’re going to get a whole lotta love from the Gator fans. We taste blood and when the blood is out, we’re like vampires. We’re going to get that. That’s our mentality. When we taste blood, that’s when it gets scary.”

Florida was scary good the rest of the way. Defensively, they were smothering. Alabama wanted to take some three-point shots but only got four off in the entire second half. The Tide tried to drive to the hoop but Lee Humphrey was constantly in the way of point guard Ronald Steele and he had nowhere to go with the ball. All the rhythm of the first half was taken away in the second half by Florida’s defense and that is all the offense needed to get cranking.

“I thought Lee was terrific on defense against Steele,” said Donovan. “He gapped him, he backed up off of him, he didn’t give up threes. He kept him in front.”

On the offensive end, Green took the team on his shoulders. After the scoreless first half, Green was unstoppable in the second. He was 0-6 from the field in the first half. He was 6-7 in the second including 2-3 from the three-point stripe. His 20-point second half turnaround was indicative of the night and day difference in Florida’s two halves of basketball.

“The difference and why it was such a great turnaround is we shot 63 percent in the second half and we held them to 37 percent,” said Donovan. “It was really our defense that let us get back in the game.”

Alabama finished the game at 44.8 percent, making the Tide the fourteenth straight team that has shot below 50 percent against Florida. Alabama finished at 37.5 percent on three-pointers (6-16), the twelfth straight team that has failed to hit 50 percent from the arc against the Gators.

Florida improved to 24-2 overall and 11-0 in Southeastern Conference play, bringing the Gators to within one win of clinching at least a tie for the SEC championship. If the Gators win at Vanderbilt Saturday and Kentucky loses to Alabama, then Florida could even clinch the title outright on Saturday.

But clinching the SEC is only part of this team’s grand scheme. They want to repeat as NCAA champions but Noah says it’s critical that they stay focused and hungry to do it.

“Success makes you less hungry sometimes,” he said. “Right now we have everything but we have to play like we don’t have anything.”

GAME NOTES: Green joined Brewer in the 1,000-point club for his Florida career. Green now has 1,002 points while Brewer has 1,035. Noah has 982, Humphrey 934 and Horford 923 … The Gators tied their all-time winning streak of 17. That record has been set three times in the last two years … Alabama (18-7 overall) dropped to second place in the SEC West at 5-6. Ole Miss took sole possession of the lead in the SEC West with a win over LSU Wednesday night.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.