GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida let a 10-point first half lead slip away, but opened the second half with a big run to put away Alabama, 78-69, in a Southeastern Conference game on Saturday.
The third-ranked Gators extended their home winning streak to 29 games, including 14 SEC wins in a row at the O’Connell Center dating to last season.
Florida, one win shy of its best SEC start ever, placed five players in double figures and are two wins from matching the longest winning streak in school history.
It won’t come easy, playing at Tennessee on Tuesday and Kentucky on Saturday. And Gators coach Billy Donovan has some work to do. Florida had a rough defensive outing and blew a nice early lead.
“That’s not our defense at all,” center Patric Young said. “We gave up too many easy baskets.”‘
His coach agreed.
“We’re about to play some games where if you play defense like we did today, you’re not going to win,” Donovan said.
Alabama shot 55 percent for the game, including 54.5 from behind the arc. But Florida missed only 19-of-50 field goal attempts in the game and had 48 points in the paint.
Florida (21-2, 10-0 in the SEC) trailed, 41-39, with 18:48 left in the game after the fourth 3-pointer of the game by guard Trevor Releford of Alabama, who finished with 25 points.
That’s when Florida started its game-winning march, a 17-3 run highlighted by two 3-pointers by guard Scottie Wilbekin, who finished with 16 points.
After a huge first half, Releford was kept more at bay in the second 20 minutes.
“I think that was their game plan, not letting me get open shots like I did in the first half, and they did a good job,” Releford said. “I’ll watch film and next time be better for it.”
Young, who scored 11 points, had a basket inside and a free throw to put Florida head for good, 42-41, with 17:58 to play.
Forward Casey Prather, who almost didn’t play because of an ankle issue, had a basket that was followed by 3-pointers by Michael Frazier II, who had 13 points, and Wilbekin, and the nine-point cushion would prove to be more than enough.
Freshman forward Chris Walker, in his second college game, had two baskets to help build a 54-44 lead with under 11 minutes to go. Walker, who was limited because he hasn’t been able to spend much time working on the team’s zone offense, was not ruled eligible to play until earlier in the week by the NCAA.
It was Florida’s first double-digit lead since starting the game with its 14-4 run.
Prather, who had 15 points and six rebounds, followed with layup for the Gators’ largest lead to that point, 56-44, with 10:31 to play. The bucket finished off the 17-3 run.
“Early in the second half, they were able to get out in transition, because we were struggling offensively to get some continuity in terms of scoring,” Grant said.
“(Florida is) at their best when they are in transition, which allowed them to build an eight-point lead. Our guys battled and fought back but from an offensive standpoint, they took us out of some things that we were able to get there in the first half.”
The Gators have the second-best start in school history, as the 2006-07 team had a 24-2 mark.
Florida’s overall winning streak is 15 in a row, two short of the school record, achieved three times in program history.
The Gators opened the game with a 14-4 surge, but thanks to Releford, who had 16 points in the first half, Alabama kept fighting back.
“We get an early lead and then we got lackadaisical,” Wilbekin said.
The score was tied, 18-18, when a mini-run pushed the Crimson Tide ahead, 25-19, on a 3-pointer by guard Rodney Cooper.
Alabama (9-14, 3-7) caused some uncomfortable moments in the first 20 minutes for the Gators’ crowd, taking a 31-26 lead after Releford’s second of three buckets from behind the arc with 4:21 left.
But Florida pulled even by halftime, 36-36, as forward Will Yeguete, who matched his season high with 12
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