UF hoops survives the Tide
Published: Wednesday, January 9, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 8, 2008 at 11:59 p.m.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — As the final seconds ticked away, Florida freshman Jai Lucas clinched the ball and pumped his fist.
Who: Auburn at Florida
Where: O'Connell Center
When: Saturday, 12 p.m.
Then, with the final two free throws, Lucas punctuated an improbable and impressive Southeastern Conference road win for the Gators.
Florida rallied from as many as 10 in the first half and seven at halftime to beat Alabama 90-83 Tuesday night at Coleman Coliseum.
"I told our guys after the game, there are going to be 15 more just like this," Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
Florida's freshmen took center stage in their Southeastern Conference debuts. Guard Nick Calathes finished with 21 points with nine assists and Lucas added 19 points and three assists in front of his dad, former NBA coach and point guard John Lucas, who sat behind the Florida bench.
"Any time you have family there, it's nice, it's extra support," Lucas said. "It was just a big win for us. We needed to get started right in the SEC."
"It's a big win for us, but we can't dwell on it too much," Calathes said. "We have to get back to practice, work hard and stay humble."
West Palm Beach native Alonzo Gee led Alabama (11-5, 0-1 SEC) with 32 points, with forward Richard Hendrix adding 24 points and 16 rebounds.
Tied at 71, Florida (14-2, 1-0 SEC) appeared to take control of the game with an 11-0 run, taking an 82-71 lead on a pair of Walter Hodge free throws.
But Alabama stormed back, cutting the Florida lead to 82-79 when Hendrix made one of two free throws.
That's when Calathes threaded his final assist, a back-door, bounce pass between two Alabama defenders that Hodge caught and converted for an open layup to extend Florida's lead back to 84-79 with 1:21 remaining.
"It was a little risky," Calathes said. "I kind of had my eye on Walter and when I first threw it I was a little concerned. But I trusted that Walter was going to make the catch and make the play."
"I still felt like we needed to be aggressive," Donovan said. "They were coming at us, and the worst thing we could do in that situation was be passive and play laterally."
From there, Florida made six of its last 10 free throws to close the game out, with Dan Werner coming up with a big offensive rebound off a missed Calathes free throw. Had Werner not come up with the rebound, Alabama would have had the ball down 86-83 with 22.4 seconds remaining.
Werner was immediately fouled and made both free throws to close out the game.
Florida made 11-of-22 3-pointers, including seven-of-11 for the second half, and had 19 assists to off-set 17 turnovers. Hodge finished with a career-high 17 points and Werner had 12 points and seven rebounds.
Lucas cut the Alabama lead to 48-46 with a 3-pointer early in the second half, but the Tide responded with six straight points and appeared ready to run away at home with a 56-48 lead.
That's when Florida went to work. Calathes hit a 3-pointer and Lucas made two free throws to cut the Alabama lead to 56-53. After Alabama scored three straight points, Florida kept coming.
Calathes made two more free throws, then Hodge and Lucas hit back-to-back 3-pointers, giving Florida its first lead, 61-59, with 13:19 left.
Florida tried to stay with Alabama during an up-tempo first half. Alabama scored 12 first-half points off 10 Florida turnovers.
Hendrix made his presence immediately known, parking his 260-pound body in the line for an offensive rebound and putback of a missed free-throw to put Alabama up 4-0.
Florida had no answers to stop Gee, who scored on a variety of 3-point shots and baseline drives to the basket. After Florida freshman Alex Tyus tied the score at 15 in the first half, Gee led Alabama on a 7-0 run, scoring all seven points on a 3-pointer, layup in transition and driving layup to the basket.
Gee put Alabama ahead 38-28 with his third 3-pointer of the half, but Florida fought back, cutting the Alabama lead to 41-37 with 1:58 remaining on a pair of Jonathan Mitchell free throws.
All that work unraveled quickly. Alabama scored six straight points, extending the lead back to 47-37 on a Hendrix layup with 6.5 seconds remaining.
But Lucas worked the ball down the court in time to drill a 3-pointer at the buzzer, cutting the Alabama lead to 47-40 at halftime.
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