Gators set for Alabama in tourney opener

The first meeting between Alabama and Florida provided one of the few highlights for the Gators this season.

With the game tied at 50 with less than 30 seconds left, Florida forward Dorian Finney-Smith used a shot fake and dribbled around his defender, attacking the rim with a thunderous dunk to give the Gators a two-point lead with 21 seconds remaining.

At the other end of the floor, Finney-Smith blocked a shot and corralled the ball as time expired to clinch the 52-50 win.

The dunk gave Florida (15-16, 8-10 SEC) momentum and even helped spark a one-point win over Arkansas in the next game.

“He obviously made a great shot fake and had a pretty clear path to the basket and the guy at the rim was kind of in a bad situation because you’re inside the halo, so you can’t really take a charge and you can’t really jump,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “He did a great job in terms of shot faking and driving it. You want to get some momentum going to the basket at least for a foul or to create some kind of penetration to open the floor up and kick it out. I thought he just made the right decision to drive the ball on that play.”

The Gators outscored Alabama 26-10 in the paint that game, but Donovan shrugged off that meaning anything for Thursday’s matchup (1 p.m., TV: SEC Network). In the first meeting, Alabama (18-13, 8-10) big man Jimmie Taylor got into early foul trouble and only played 10 minutes in the game because the foul trouble didn’t go away in the second half.

With Taylor out, Chris Walker was able to have one of his best games of the year with 12 points and four rebounds. Averaging just 5.4 points and 4.9 rebounds, Donovan believes the 6-10, 240-pound Taylor plays a big role in Alabama’s defense.

“He has kind of been the anchor to their defense, he’s a really good shot blocker,” Donovan said. “He has continued to get better and improve, but I think he had two charge fouls early in the game, which put him to the bench and then he picked up a couple early in the second half. He never really got into the flow of the game. It probably took away some of their length at the basket when Dorian was able to drive the ball at the end of the game.”

Alabama guards Rodney Cooper and Ricky Tarrant combined for 27 of the team’s 50 points. Levi Randolph, the third guard in the starting lineup that night, was the only other Alabama player to score more than five points. Tarrant is out for the season with a leg injury, and redshirt junior Retin Obasohan (5.5 points/2.7 rebounds) is back in the lineup for Thursday.

The Gators go into Thursday’s game needing a win to better its argument for a spot in the NIT. The winner of the matchup faces off with No. 1 Kentucky on Friday.

Donovan said he has seen some growth from his team in recent weeks, but he’s still interested to see how they play on Thursday.

“I think our guys, over the last couple of weeks, we've gotten better as a team,” Donovan said. “I think our guys have gotten better. You look at the result of winning and losing, but I have seen some growth and some progress and some strides in our team."

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