Noah Locke knew what was coming. He had been inserted into the game during a timeout and he knew Alabama was going to run the same play that had worked successfully three times in a row Saturday.
In hindsight, said Alabama coach Nate Oats, “maybe I should have done something different.”
Instead, the steal and ensuing layup was the biggest play in a game full of crazy.
Florida trailed by as many as 21 points in the first half. After cutting into the lead with a strong finish to the first half and strong start to the second, the Gators again fell behind by double digits more than once.
“We were about dead in the water a couple of different times,” said Florida coach Mike White.
But his team never stopped chipping away at the Alabama (7-6, 0-1 SEC) lead and finally, it came down to this — an inbounds play with 23 seconds to go and UF down by two.
“They put me in for that play,” Locke said. “I saw it and I was able to go underneath it. It was a lob pass, really.”
With an O’Connell Center crowd of 9,350 squealing in delight, Locke went right to basket for the tying shot.
“I knew he was going to try to block it, so I tried to get it up quick,” said the sophomore guard.
White said after the steal he was thinking about calling a timeout, but by then Locke had already laid the ball into the basket.
Florida (9-4, 1-0 SEC) still had to survive a three-point try by a team that made 13 on the night, still had to overcome the emotional letdown of thinking it had won in OT before a putback by Kerry Blackshear Jr. that was waved off as being too late, still had to make free throws in the second overtime.
But Florida did all of those things and finished off the biggest comeback in school history with a 104-98 double overtime win in the SEC opener.
“It was a grind,” said UF sophomore guard Andrew Nembhard, who had a career high 25 points.
The second overtime came down to late free throws, all six made with less than a minute to go. Scottie Lewis made two and then Nembhard and then Blackshear.
And then Florida had a madly needed victory.
“This game showed our culture and how well we can play together,” said Lewis.
Florida won because it made 30-of-36 free throws and because of that late run at the end of the first half and because it didn’t let the disaster that was much of the first half ruin the night.
“It wasn’t that bad (at halftime),” Nembhard said. “(White) was just telling us what we needed to do.”
They had to keep shoveling the dirt of the grave that was this game. The 21-point deficit was one thing, but down eight with under two minutes to play is almost as impressive.
Keyontae Johnson made a 3 and with 37 seconds to play it was Nembhard getting a three-point play on a twisting drive. Florida still trailed by five when Blackshear made a 3 with 25.2 seconds to go to set up the wild finish.
“They had some guys step up,” Oats said.
And they had a coach step out onto the floor in anger after a call in the second half that resulted in a technical. It may or may not have inspired the Gators to see their coach so angry.
“Mike gets banged for a ‘T’ and 15 of the next 20 calls go their way,” said Oats. “He knows what he’s doing.”
Because the teams played 50 minutes, the statistics were ridiculous. Alabama had six players score in double figures and three foul out. John Petty led the way with 19.
Florida had three players record double-doubles. Blackshear had 24 points and 16 rebounds despite playing the last 11-plus minutes and both overtimes with four fouls.
Lewis had 15 points in 10 rebounds coming off the bench after missing the last game in concussion protocol. Johnson had 10 points and 12 rebounds.
And Florida has a 1-0 record in SEC play.
“We’re a team that’s still not sure of themselves right now,” White said. “I’m hoping at some point we’re going to be sure of ourselves.”
Florida continues SEC play with the first of two straight road games on Tuesday, when UF faces South Carolina at 7 p.m. on ESPNU. It will be the SEC opener for the Gamecocks (8-5), who last played Monday night.
Notes: The previous largest comeback was 18 points, accomplished 2/14/07 vs. Alabama and 2/24/93 at South Carolina.
*The Gators trailed by 14 at halftime, tied for the largest home halftime comeback in school history (14 vs. Vanderbilt, 12/18/67, 74-72 final). The Gators have overcome larger halftime deficits on two occasions: 18, at South Carolina, 2/24/93, 80-73 final; 15 at Jacksonville, 12/26/73, 64-62 final.
*Nembhard scored 15 of his career-high 25 points after the 5:00 mark in the second half.
*The Gators have scored 100 points in back-to-back games for the first time since doing so vs. Stanford and Gonzaga, both at Portland in Nov. 2017.
Gators 104, Crimson Tide 98, 2 OT
K.Lewis 7-26 1-2 17, Jones 5-9 5-8 15, Petty 6-14 3-4 19, Bolden 3-9 7-8 15, Shackelford 4-10 0-0 11, Reese 3-4 6-8 14, Davis 0-0 0-2 0, Smith 3-4 1-2 7. Totals 31-76 23-34 98.
Locke 6-9 4-7 18, Nembhard 8-20 8-9 25, Blackshear 6-13 10-11 24, K.Johnson 3-5 2-2 10, S.Lewis 5-12 6-6 17, Payne 2-6 0-0 4, Glover 3-11 0-1 6, Mann 0-1 0-0 0, Bassett 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 33-79 30-36 104.
Halftime_Alabama 46-32. 3-Point Goals_Alabama 13-34 (Petty 4-10, Shackelford 3-5, Reese 2-3, Bolden 2-7, K.Lewis 2-9), Florida 8-24 (K.Johnson 2-3, Blackshear 2-5, Locke 2-5, S.Lewis 1-3, Nembhard 1-5, Glover 0-3). Fouled Out_Jones, Davis. Rebounds_Alabama 42 (Jones 10), Florida 50 (Blackshear 16). Assists_Alabama 12 (Jones 5), Florida 11 (Nembhard 5). Total Fouls_Alabama 29, Florida 20.