Tide Hangs On To Beat Florida

Alabama's basketball team was in the Georgia Dome Thursday night, but one might have thought the Crimson Tide was at Six Flags on the scariest of roller coaster rides. Bama went way up, plunged way down, then went back up to a first round victory in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

Alabama ended Florida's successful run of back to back SEC Tournament championships and one of its two consecutive national championships in Atlanta with an 80-69 victory in the first round of the tournament. The Gators had won 19 consecutive games in post-season play going into Thursday's game.

Mykal Riley, the hero of Alabama's 78-73 overtime victory over Vanderbilt to end regular season play, continued his hot shooting. He tied the Alabama and SEC Tournament records with eight three-point shots, hitting 8-12 from behind the arc. He had 26 points. Richard Hendrix had 22 points and eight rebounds. On a terrible night of free throw shooting by Bama, Hendrix was the surprise exception, connecting on 8-10.

It was the first time since the powder puff schedule days of December that Alabama had won two games in a row. Alabama improved its record to 17-15. Bama, the fifth SEC Western Division seed with a 5-11 regular season league record, will face the SEC West champion, Mississippi State, on Friday. Tipoff will be at 7:30 p.m. EDT (6:30 p.m. central time) with regional television coverage.

Mississippi State defeated Alabama twice in regular season play, but the two have not played since Bama fell by 73-66 in Starkville on February 6. The Bulldogs defeated Bama in Tuscaloosa, 66-56, on January 19.

While an 11-point win over the Gators might seem like "ho-hum," it was anything but. Alabama opened the game with a 14-0 run. The Crimson Tide had as much as a 28-point lead in the first half and had doubled the score on Florida at intermission, 46-23. The Tide scored first in the second half for a 25-point lead, but a few minutes later -- after a Riley trey at the 16:36 mark -- Alabama's defense went into the deep freeze. The Tide scored only two free throws over the next six and a half minutes. Florida went on a 21-2 run and cut Alabama's lead to only six points, 57-51, with nine minutes to play.

Then Riley began to get the basketball again. Good idea. Riley hit a trey to make it 60-51. A minute later he hit another one to make it 63-53. With 3:42 to play he made his record-tying eighth three-pointer and Bama led by 67-56.

Hendrix and Alonzo Gee (who finished with 13 points) had easy baskets against the Florida press in the last two minutes and Rico Pickett made five free throws down he stretch to secure thewin.

Alabama Coach Mark Gottfried said, "The first half we guarded them pretty well. The second half we kind of lost them on a few trips."

Gottfried said, "No one gave us much of a chance. We were kind of loosey-goosey. Our guys have stayed positive and encouraged each other."

Gottfried said Riley's three-pointer with 7:11 to play after the Gators had cut the margin to six points was "huge. It seemed like we had been stuck on 55 or 56 points forever." He said, "Our guys were doing a good job of getting the ball to him and screening, but he was the one knocking down the shots. He has been sensational lately.

Gottfried acknowledged the difficulty of staying aggressive with a big lead. He said he was very pleased with Alabama's first half p;erformance for Bama's "defense, controlling the tempo, and not turning the ball over."

Alabama took only 18 second half field goal attempts, but made nine of them. For the game the Tide hit 25-=47 from the field, 53 per cent. Bama was 8-14 on treys for 57 per cent. (Riley was the only Tider to connect on a three-pointer.) Bama free throw shooting was atrocious. the Tide missed 16 foul shots, making 22-28 for 58 per cent.

Alabama had a 14-rebound advantage at halftime and improved that by only two in the second half as the Tide finished with a 45-29 margin on the boards. Alabama had 17 turnovers, 13 of them in the second half.

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