Gators warm in second half, oust Vandy, 77-66

ATLANTA-- Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker combined for 41 points, and No. 12 Florida came roaring back from a 12-point second-half deficit to overcome Vanderbilt 77-66 Saturday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals. The Gators' (26-6) opponent in Sunday's championship game (noon CT, ABC-TV) will be Kentucky (24-8), which easily defeated Alabama 72-56 in Saturday's other semifinal.

The Commodores turned in a strong first-half performance before 21,728 at the Georgia Dome, leading 36-28 at the break and stretching that lead to 40-28 early in the second half. But shortly afterwards the course of the game seemed to change, and the Gators outscored Vandy 49-28 over the game's final 18 minutes.

Over that 18-minute stretch, the 'Dores seemed to lose their shooting touch and their ability to pull rebounds. Led by the guard tandem of Boynton (24 points) and Walker (17), the SEC regular-season champion Gators fought back to knock off Vanderbilt for the third time this season.

"Vanderbilt came out and played really well," said Florida coach Billy Donovan. "They were the aggressor. I thought we turned the ball over way too much in the first half. We had 11 turnovers, and a lot of those turnovers led to some baskets for them.

"But in the second half, we came out and, really for most of the half, pretty well. And I think the big key was that we got stops and we held them to a low percentage from the field."

Sent packing by the Gators, the Commodores still have not been able to reach the championship game a single time since the tournament was revived in 1979.

"I thought we played them much better defensively this week than we did last week at our place," said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, whose team had also lost to Florida one week ago in the regular season finale. "But unfortunately it wasn't enough. We're very regretful and disappointed in that, because we really thought we could and wanted to play [Sunday]."

Vanderbilt shot a miserable 29 percent from the floor in the second half. John Jenkins, who had blistered Mississippi State for 29 points the night before, went 3-of-15 (2-for-12 from behind the arc), while guard teammate Brad Tinsley was 3-of-12. The Gators, meanwhile, hit 11-of-21 from behind the stripe.

Behind Jeffery Taylor, who scored 13 of his 21 points in the first half, Vanderbilt kept Florida on its heels the entire first half. But against a team that has now racked up 15 wins against SEC competition, the Commodores couldn't maintain the intensity.

"They just executed better than us towards the end of the stretch," said Festus Ezeli, denying that fatigue played a factor. Ezeli had a solid outing with 17 points and 9 rebounds.

The Commodores now return to Nashville to await their opening-round NCAA Tournament assignment, which should be announced on CBS-TV Sunday evening. With a season record of 23-10, Vanderbilt has a solid resume for post-season play-- the only question is where they'll be seeded.

"I don't spend enough time studying it, so I would be the last person that you could ask that question to that could give you a viable, responsible answer," said Stallings. "And if we're a 5, if we're a 12, if we're a 17, then the committee will have done their work and they will assign us what we deserve to be.

"This has become such a science now that I don't think that there's going to be a lot of overlooking on the committee's part. They spend too much time doing it, and we're just hopeful of being in, and we hope our name is called." Top Stories