Florida played like its life was on the line Saturday afternoon, because it was. The Gators came into Tuscaloosa below .500 in SEC play and in desperate need of a win over the Alabama Crimson Tide to continue their fight back into the NCAA Tournament field.
Florida controlled the pace and energy of the game from the tip.
Neither team got off to a great start offensively as the Gators led just 4-0 at the first media timeout. Both of those baskets came by the hand of Andrew Nembhard.
The defense smothered Alabama’s offensive attack early. The Tide did not even get on the scoreboard until nearly six minutes into the game on a pair of free throws.
It took even longer to get a shot to fall from the field in and 0-for-7 start. Alabama finally ended the drought with a jumper at the 12:15 mark of the first half, making it 12-4.
KeVaughn Allen and Keyontae Johnson combined for the next 11 Florida points, stretching the lead to 13.
The Tide slowly cut into the deficit for the remainder of the half, getting back within seven with 1:19 before the break, but the Gators took a 35-26 lead to the locker room.
Nembhard started the second half the same way he started the first, with a bucket. That put Florida back up by double digits once again.
Alabama standout freshman Kira Lewis Jr. answered with a three-pointer, making it 37-29.
But after four straight points from Johnson and a beautiful connection from Jalen Hudson to Kevarrius Hayes that led to a three-point play, the Gators were cruising again at 44-31.
Hudson didn’t score much on Saturday, but he did hit a big three to give his team a 17-point advantage with 13:17 remaining.
The only question left was if Florida could avoid the collapse its struggled with late in so many games this season. Around the 12-minute mark it started to look like that might be coming.
The Gators didn’t score a point for more than three minutes as the Tide went on an 8-0 run. Nembhard turned the ball over twice in that span after being as close to perfect as he could have possibly been leading up to that.
Fortunately for Florida, it had built such a strong cushion that it still led by eight points.
Nembhard made up for his previous mistakes by driving to the basket, drawing a foul and completing a three-point play to make it 55-44 with 8:21 on the clock.
From there, the Gators continued to fight as they seemed to suck the life right back out of the Tide. Rather than playing scared to lose with time winding down, Florida stayed on the gas all the way to the end as it closed out a 71-53 win.
As they have so many times this season, Florida’s freshmen led the way. While Noah Locke continues to battle injury, Nembhard and Johnson had their best performances of the season in the same game.
Nembhard has struggled with his shooting and finishing layups this season, but it wasn’t a problem against the Tide. Florida’s point guard isn’t at full health either as he’s been battling with some tendinitis, but he finished a perfect 9-for-9 from the field for a career-best 21 points.
“I felt really good,” he said. “I tried to be confident. It’s all about my teammates. They make me better. They gave me good shots.”
As for Johnson, he seems to impress more and more every single game. He earned the most minutes he’s gotten all season at 36, and he took advantage of all 36 of them.
He had 14 points and 13 rebounds. That was not only Johnson’s first career double-double, it was the first double-double of any Florida player this season.
“He’s been improving all year,” Nembhard said of Johnson. “He’s great. He’s been working so hard, and it’s just showing in the games now.”
Allen also finished in double figures with 13 as the Gators shot 54 percent from the field.
Alabama overmatched Florida inside on paper, but that did not translate to the game. The Gators had a 36-24 advantage in points in the paint and outrebounded the Tide 31-23.
Alabama also shot itself in the foot a bit by letting easy opportunities for points go to waste. The Tide got to the foul line for 22 free throw attempts in the game, but only made 10.
The Gators will take a victory on the road any way they can get it, but this one should feel good. Florida came into the game just behind Alabama in the tournament projections, so a head-to-head win could really pay off down the road.
The Gators will get an even bigger opportunity next game as they head to Baton Rouge to take on a ranked LSU team that just took down Kentucky.