Happy night for the Gator seniors
It isn’t how you start a game, it’s how you finish. The Florida Gators showed up Tuesday in the O’Connell Center ready to play for an SEC Title. An excited team got off to a bad start, and when they settled down, the Gators played their way to only their fifth SEC Championship in 92 years. For seniors Vernon Macklin, Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus, and even Adam Allen, it was one great night.
As it turned out, Alabama’s potent defense wasn’t enough and if Florida could have gotten out of its own way in the first half, the game may have been over much sooner. When the buzzer sounded to end the first half, the game was tied 30-30. The Gators were playing good defense in that they forced 11 turnovers from Alabama.
The Crimson Tide shot free throws well and converted a few fastbreak points in the first half while Florida got open looks at the basket and shot a miserable 36.7% from the field. The Gators went 0-of-10 from three-point land before sophomore guard Kenny Boynton hit two in a row to end the half. The Gators also shot just 50% (6-of-12) from the free throw line in the half.
Head coach Billy Donovan understood what was going on and realized his team was getting good shots, it was just a matter of them going in.
“I think to start the game our guys were really emotional,” Donovan said after the Gators 78-51 blowout win over Alabama. “I thought we played really hard and aggressive. As a coach sitting over there every time they shot the ball really long, you kind of know they were a little too excited. I thought our press was good in the first half and caused some turnovers that really helped us. We had a nice run to close out the first half."
Then….it all came together.
“I thought the second half was as good as we have played in the second half all year,” Donovan said. “For us to play the way we did on both ends of the floor – we guarded them really well and were really efficient on offense – we put together a half there that was really incredible.
“When you start making open three point shots and now the defense has to run out there and guard you, it really opens up a lot of things. We were able to get them spaced out because Boynton made some threes, Walker made some threes, and Parson made some threes. As their perimeter guys are worried about running out to the three point line, now Macklin’s catching it and Tyus is catching it and we are able to drive it a little easier. At one point in the first half we were 0-10 from the three point line. I thought Boynton’s two three’s before the half helped extend the defense a little bit so we could do a few more things inside.”
The seniors showed up in style. Vernon Macklin had 14 points in the second half to finish with 19. Chandler Parsons had 11 points in the second half to finish with 19 as well to go along with 11 rebounds. Alex Tyus finished the game with 12 points and nine rebounds on the night.
“I couldn’t be happier, more proud, and more excited,” Donovan said. “ There haven’t been a lot of SEC Championships in Florida’s basketball history. For Chandler, Vernon, and Alex to be a piece of that…all three of them had a huge impact in the game. I am just so happy for them, because three or four years ago I didn’t know a day like today was possible for these guys. The way they have grown and battled, for me as a coach I was really happy just sitting there watching them.”
On such a great night, one thing that was hard was having to go against one of Donovan’s closest friends and former assistants in Anthony Grant.
Grant is the head coach at Alabama who had his team in position to win the SEC as well, and a win against the Gators would have clinched it for the Crimson Tide.
“It was a hard game for me because I love our seniors and coaching those guys,” Donovan said. “But, the guy on the other bench has had a large part of the success in this program.”
But this game was important for a senior class that went through a lot. A class that has not won an NCAA basketball tournament game, much less a conference title.
“I think in the second half, for Tyus, Macklin, and Parsons to play the way they did on a night like tonight - the last game they will ever play in the O’Dome - to go out the way they did, and to walk out with at least a share of the SEC Championship - I don’t think it could have been scripted any better and for those three guys and for that I am very happy,” Donovan said. “They have come such a long way as players, as people, and as teammates and having an understanding of what it takes to compete…I really give them credit, because they showed a lot of fortitude and resiliency. They finally figured it out and became the players they are today.
“Florida has been playing basketball for 92 years and there has only been five teams to leave with SEC Championships. Those guys are going to leave with something so significant”
Florida also got key play from its backcourt starting duo of Boynton and junior Erving Walker. Boynton ended up with 14 points and went on a tear from behind the three-point line hitting four of his last five on the night. He also had six assists and no turnovers on the night. Walker also hit two key three’s in a run that eventually broke the back of the Crimson Tide. He tallied seen assists and three turnovers to go with his eight points.
The Gators have now clinched at least a share of the SEC East Title and the No. 1 seed in the East for the conference tournament that will start in about 10 days. They have won 23 regular season games for only the fifth time with three of the four previous teams making it to the Final Four (2000-2001, 2005-2006, and 2006-2007).
Donovan added a little emotion at the end of the game when he allowed senior Adam Allen to finish the game and run out the clock in the last 14 seconds. Allen has been sidelined for three years and has been a team favorite for his battle to try and play throughout the time. The fans seemed equally excited when Allen hit the floor.
The Gators conclude the regular season when they play at Vanderbilt on Saturday at 6 p.m. on ESPN. A win by the Gators or loss by Alabama this weekend means the Gators are sole winners of the conference. A loss by Florida and win by the Crimson Tide means they will share the conference title.