Tide roll, puts damper on Gators' NCAA hopes

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

Florida's first-round exit from the SEC tournament left the Gators with a four-game losing streak, shaky NCAA tournament credentials and a gloomy prediction from their coach.

Mykal Riley and Alabama built a big first-half lead and beat the Gators 80-69 on Thursday night to end Florida's three-year run as Southeastern Conference tournament champions.

The fall from the top of the SEC seemed to be the least of Florida coach Billy Donovan's worries. The two-time defending national champion Gators (21-11) may be left out of this year's NCAA field, and Donovan says changes must come if his young team can return to prominence.

Florida started two freshmen and two sophomores, and three of the team's top four reserves are freshmen. Donovan didn't sound encouraged by what normally would be an encouraging sign for the future.

"It's hard for me to be excited going forward because I don't see things getting fixed," Donovan said.

"It's in front of our guys, what it takes to win. For whatever reason, I haven't brought it out in them. They're not committed to it. ... I'm not really excited about seeing this group of guys being sophomores."

The Crimson Tide (17-15) had a 28-point lead shrink to 6 before recovering to beat Florida.

Riley tied the school record with eight 3-pointers and finished with 26 points. The senior guard snapped Florida's momentum with back-to-back 3s after the Gators pulled to 57-51 with 9:02 left.

"When he hit one of those 3s to kind of give us some oxygen in the tank, it allowed us to stretch it out more," said Alabama coach Mark Gottfried. "We had some poise down the stretch."

Said Riley: "It felt real big to shoot those 3s and make them."

Alabama will face Western Division top seed Mississippi State in Friday's quarterfinals.

Richard Hendrix added 22 points for Alabama, while sophomore Marreese Speights led Florida with 15.

Alabama ended Florida's streak of 18 consecutive postseason victories over two years while giving the Gators their first SEC tournament loss since the 2004 championship game.

"We didn't come ready to play today," Florida freshman Chandler Parsons said. "We're not going to beat anybody playing defense like that."

That wasn't exactly what Donovan wanted to hear.

"For Chandler to say the team wasn't ready to play, I've got to take responsibility for that because I think that's my job," Donovan said. "It's disappointing to hear."

Alabama had 14-0 and 11-0 runs in the first 11 minutes to lead by 25 before Florida reached double figures. The Crimson Tide took their biggest lead, 42-14, with 4 minutes left in the first half, then struggled to put the game away.

The loss leaves Florida with a nervous wait until Sunday, when the NCAA tournament field is announced. Florida has played in nine straight NCAA tournaments.

Florida won at least 20 games for the 10th straight season, but it has four straight losses and a shaky RPI ranking at No. 65.

Florida suffered a dramatic reversal of its domination while winning the last three SEC tournaments. The Gators beat Georgia, Mississippi and Arkansas by an average of almost 20 points on the way to the 2007 championship in Atlanta.

Al Horford, a star of last year's Florida team, attended the game but all he could do was watch. He's now a rookie star with the NBA's Atlanta Hawks.

Florida beat Alabama 90-83 in Tuscaloosa on Jan. 8, but the Crimson Tide opened strong by scoring the first 14 points in the rematch.

Hendrix hit the first basket, and followed with a steal to set the pace. Riley had three 3s in the first five minutes while Hendrix and Alonzo Gee, who had three first-half dunks, led the inside attack.

Alabama didn't rest on its opening run. After Alex Tyus scored for Florida to make it 19-5, the Tide ripped off 11 straight points to push the lead to 30-5.

Florida managed only two field goals in the first 10:55.

Alabama led 46-23 at halftime and was up 55-30 after a 3-pointer by Riley, but Florida stormed back by scoring 21 of the next 23 points. Chandler Parsons hit two 3s during the run and wound up with 13 pounds.

"There was a stretch in the second half when we were kind of holding on instead of playing basketball," Gottfried said.

After Riley ended Florida's comeback with two 3-pointers, the Gators pulled no closer than eight points the rest of the way.

Gee had 13 points for Alabama, which held a 45-29 advantage on the boards but committed 17 turnovers.


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