One might ask if Alabama is ever going to beat Florida again. The Gators took a 69-61 win over Bama on Thursday afternoon at Bridgestone Arena, the 11th consecutive win by Florida against Alabama and the Gators’ 22nd win in the last 25 meetings. A decade ago Bama had a huge advantage in this series, which is now down to only 73-66.
The answer to the first question is that continuing this season doesn’t really matter as the Crimson Tide has struggled to an 18-14 record and had a losing (8-10) SEC mark even before tacking on another loss Thursday. The answer to the second question is that, yes, Alabama will someday defeat Florida.
Which brings us to the one burning question. Is Anthony Grant, who just finished his sixth season as head coach at Alabama with one game in NCAA Tournament play on his resume, going to be the one who has the next opportunity against Florida?
There could be a surprise announcement from Nashville, Bama Athletics Director Bill Battle giving Grant a vote of confidence for a second straight year. It’s improbable, though not impossible, that Battle would make a quick decision for a change. The mood in Tuscaloosa, though, seems to be that there will not be a quick announcement, but that Grant is not likely to be dismissed.
Alabama’s loss to Florida on the second day of the SEC Tournament was reminiscent of so many of the losses suffered by the Crimson Tide this year. Bama started with an aggressive offense that produced an early eight-point lead. By halftime that advantage had been frittered away, and the Gators were barely pressured to maintain a lead and cruised to victory in the second half.
Led by Rodney Cooper, who had 11 first half points, Alabama burst from the gates, scoring 14 points in the game’s first 4:43 to build an eight-point lead. The Gators came back with an 8-0 run to tie the game and had a 33-20 halftime lead.
Alabama had four of its five starters reach double figures, led by Levi Randolph and Jimmie Taylor who each turned in 15 points. Rodney Cooper – who fouled out with just under five minutes remaining – scored 13, while Retin Obasohan rounded out the Tide double-digit scorers with 10. Freshman Riley Norris added eight points and a team-leading seven rebounds. The starting five scored all of Alabama’s points, while the UA reserves finished 0-of-4 in 40 combined minutes.
If Alabama had a chance to win, it was probably eliminated by Cooper’s fifth foul. What appeared to be a nice drive and layup and foul by Florida was ruled a change and the elimination of Cooper. Had his field goal counted and been followed by a successful free throw, Bama would have been within five points of the Gators.
Florida’s Dorian Finney-Smith (who had the winning field goal in Florida’s regular season 52-50 win over Bama in Tuscaloosa) collected a game-high 23 points on 7-of-14 shooting including a season high four three-pointers. Finney-Smith also collected a game-best 11 rebounds.
The Gators connected on nine three-point shots, more than making up for Alabama’s 28-18 advantage in the paint. Offensive rebounds were key. Florida had a 35-24 rebounding advantage, including the Gators pulling down 12 offensive rebounds to Bama’s 3, and Florida had a 14-4 edge in second chance points.
"You have to give Florida credit,” said Grant. “Good game for them today. I’m proud of our guys. I thought our guys battled all the way through. Foul trouble hurt us a little bit today. It probably made a big difference in the second half. I think we put ourselves in position where we had opportunities. Unfortunately we weren't able to make enough plays to win the game."
Alabama opened the game making five consecutive field goals and seven of its first eight, including consecutive three-pointers by Cooper and Riley Norris, in building a 17-9 lead. Alabama led 23-15 with 10:36 left before Eli Carter’s back-to-back long-range baskets sparked the Gators to a 12-2 run over the next 5:28.
Free throws also helped as Florida made seven of eight down the stretch with its miss becoming a blessing as the Gators got the offensive rebound and fed Finney-Smith for a 3-pointer and 33-27 lead. Cooper's two free throws left Alabama with just a four-point deficit at the break, fitting for a half in which the teams combined to make 20 of 26 at the line.
Bama shot 45.2 per cent for the game, but was only 4-14 on three-point shots.
"We hope that we have done enough to continue playing,” said Grant. “I know that we feel like with the wins that we have and the RPI that we have, that we're deserving of an opportunity of continuing our season in the NIT. Obviously, that's a decision that will be made Sunday."
Florida won the right to move on for a game against undefeated and number one ranked Kentucky on Friday.