The Alabama Crimson Tide started out hot, but ended up anything but hot, losing to the Florida Gators 69-61 in SEC tournament action on Thursday. 'Bama hit their first five shots, and seven of the first eight (with two three-pointers) en route to an early 17-9 lead. Thereafter, the Tide missed 22 straight jump shots before hitting a pair of threes in the waning seconds of the game.
The Tide and the Gators started out playing an exciting, up-and-down the court style of basketball with crisp passing and a lot of movement. Somewhere along the way that style got lost, as Alabama had 21 points with 11 minutes left in the first stanza, and ended up with 29 at the break. Florida closed the first half on a 12-2 run to take a 33-29 halftime lead. Rodney Cooper kept 'Bama close at intermission by scoring 11 points, but also picked up two fouls, a statistic that would come back to haunt 'Bama in the second half.
Cooper picked up two quick fouls, both somewhat questionable, but hey, these are SEC refs. With Cooper relegated to the bench, plus having Shannon Hale and Ricky Tarrant out for the year with injuries, the Tide's offensive options were severely limited. Levi Randolph was having an off shooting night, although he was once again perfect (11-11) from the free throw line. Jimmie Taylor continued his strong second half of the season play on the inside, leading the team in shots attempted (10) and shots made with six.
Down 60-53 with 3:10 left, the last best chance Alabama had was when Cooper drove the lane, made the layup, and was seemingly fouled. However he was called for a charge (his fifth foul) and instead of a four point deficit the margin stayed at seven, and Florida pulled away from there.
The Crimson Tide actually had a decent field goal percentage considering they missed 22 straight jump shots (shots not in the paint), finishing 19-42 (45%) and 4-14 (29%) from three point range. The free throw shooting was excellent with 18-23 for 83%. Florida shot worse from the field, 21-49 (42%), but was 9-29 for 31% from the three point arc, as well as 18-26 (70%) from the free throw line. The Gators dominated the backboards to the tune of 35-24, including a 9-4 margin on the offensive glass. Florida's bench outscored the Tide's by a combined 22-0.
As stated before, Taylor continues to improve down low and scored 15 points, although he grabbed only three rebounds in 32 minutes of play. His playing time was a huge improvement for the big guy as he typically had to sit for long stretches because of foul trouble. Randolph scored 15, mostly on the strength of his free throw shooting. Cooper finished with 13 and Retin Obasohan was also in double figures with 10. Freshman Riley Norris scored eight and led the team with seven rebounds.
Dorian FInney-Smith was the big man for the Gators with 23 points and 11 rebounds. Eli Carter added 11 and freshman Devin Robinson joined the two in double figures with 10.
The win evened Florida's record at 16-16, while the Tide dropped to 18-14, and awaits an NIT bid on Sunday night. Florida gets the privilege of playing the 31-0 Kentucky Wildcats on Friday, and must win to assure themselves of at least a .500 record, which is required to get into postseason play. Florida has now defeated Alabama 11 times in a row, including all 10 contests coached by Anthony Grant.
Now the debate begins in earnest about the future of the program. It seems that the majority opinion is that a change must be made, and after six years of never quite getting over the hump, it is hard to argue that sentiment. The University of Alabama should expect more than one NCAA appearance in six years, although there could be an argument that they should have been in three times during that tenure.
In listening to the buzz around the Capstone it would appear the majority of fans favor a dismissal of Grant and the hiring of someone...anyone. However, it is hard to get a handle on what the administration feels. Are they pleased with graduating players, a clean program, and a coach that is an outstanding role model? Or, do they want and expect more, like more wins, more attendance, more NCAA tournament invites? The basketball program itself operated 8 million dollars in the black last year, an outstanding number that could be made even better with more wins and more full houses. With a lame duck President and a somewhat lame duck Athletic Director it will be hard to bring in a big name basketball guy as coach, when he won't know who his two bosses are.
The Tide has a good nucleus of players set to return next year in Jimmie Taylor, Riley Norris, Shannon Hale, Michael Kessens, Retin Obasohan, Ricky Tarrant, Justin Coleman, Devin Mitchell and Jeff Garrett. Donta' Hall and Dazon Ingram are signees for next year. Hall is a 6'10" post player that will be a great help down low and is the 57th rated prospect in the country according to ESPN. Ingram is a 6'4" wing player that has the ability to fill the Levi Randolph role on the court. Whoever the coach is next season, the team will have talent, as long as there isn't an exodus of available players.
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