Alabama awaits postseason fate after falling 61-51 to No. 13 Florida in SEC tourney semifinal
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Alabama couldn't leave its fate out of the NCAA tournament selection committee's hands.
The Crimson Tide will wait nervously to learn whether it will earn an at-large bid after squandering a 10-point, second-half lead Saturday and falling 61-51 to No. 13 Florida in a Southeastern Conference tournament semifinal.
The top-seeded Gators (26-6) advanced to the championship game Sunday. Alabama (21-12), the tournament's No. 4 seed, will learn Sunday whether it's included in the 68-team NCAA tournament field after failing to earn the SEC's automatic bid.
"That's why they call them invitational tournaments," Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. "We had an opportunity here to try to compete for a championship. Didn't get it done. That's all that was promised. After that, we have to wait and see."
Most mock brackets had Alabama on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble at the start of the week. Alabama went 12-6 in conference play during the regular season but hurt its cause by going 1-5 in December, including home nonconference losses to Mercer and Tulane.
"I'll just go to sleep, wake up tomorrow and see what they choose," Alabama guard Trevor Releford said. "Whatever they choose, we go from there."
Held scoreless for the first 25 minutes, Kenny Boynton had 11 straight points during a critical 15-0 run that put Florida ahead for good. Boynton said he benefited from Gators coach Billy Donovan's halftime message to him. The senior guard's second-half surge helped Florida end its season-long frustration in close games.
"He challenged me to come out and play with confidence," Boynton said. "Honestly he did challenge me, and I think I tried to step up to it."
Boynton scored all 16 of his points during a 7-minute span. Patric Young had 13 points and nine rebounds for the Gators. Mike Rosario added 10 points. Releford scored 12 points, and Nick Jacobs and Trevor Lacey each added 11 for Alabama.
Alabama led 37-27 with 16:05 remaining before Florida reeled off 15 straight points over the next 5 minutes. In the lone regular-season meeting between the two teams, Florida rallied from eight points down in the final 12½ minutes to win 64-52 on March 2 in Gainesville.
After Alabama built its 10-point lead, Lacey and teammate Andrew Steele started thinking back to that regular-season loss to Florida.
"Me and Andrew were talking about it on the bench," Lacey said. "When we went up 10, we were talking (that) we need to keep what we were doing, keep it on them, keep attacking them and just trying to make plays and just trying not to let what happened (on March 2 happen again)."
That 64-52 result on March 2 represented Florida's narrowest margin of victory all season before Saturday. The Gators entered Saturday leading the nation in scoring margin (plus-18.9), but they're 0-5 in games decided by six points or fewer.
Saturday's game featured the SEC's two best scoring defenses, and it started out as a defensive struggle. Seven minutes into the game, Florida led 6-2.
But after missing four of its first five shots and committing four turnovers in the first 5½ minutes, Alabama's offense found a rhythm. The Tide shot 55 percent (11 of 20) in the first half against a Florida team that hadn't allowed anyone to shoot 50 percent or better this season.
The Tide stayed hot early in the second half and extended its lead to 37-27 when Releford sank two free throws with 16:05 remaining.
"We were playing good defense," Young said. "They were knocking down some tough twos, some tough threes. But we knew they can't hold that up the whole (game) because they haven't been doing that the whole year. It's been tough for them to score in the halfcourt the whole season."
That's when Boynton took over the game.
First, the senior guard made a pair of free throws to cut Alabama's lead to 37-31. Next, he made a driving basket. Then, Boynton sank a 3-pointer. He followed that up with a fast-break layup that gave Florida the lead. Boynton closed this stunning flurry by going into the paint and making a shot off the glass that extended Florida's advantage to 40-37 with 12:02 remaining.
"My teammates found me in transition," Boynton said. "Basically, I didn't get more aggressive or anything. The floor just opened up more."
Boynton added a basket that put Florida ahead 47-40 with 9:40 left and a 3-pointer that made 50-42 with 8:11 remaining. Alabama, which shot 36.4 percent (8 of 22) in the second half, wouldn't cut the margin below four points the rest of the way.
"Kenny Boynton really stepped up today and made some big-time plays for them," Grant said. "Their defense really turned it up and allowed them to get out in transition and get some baskets. We were able to fight back and cut into it a little bit, but we didn't have enough today to finish it."