NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Florida finally showed it can win a close game. All it takes is for guard Kenny Boynton to answer his coach’s challenge.
Held scoreless for the first 25 minutes, Boynton had 11 straight points during a critical 15-0 run Saturday as No. 13 Florida erased a 10-point, second-half deficit to beat Alabama 61-51 in the Southeastern Conference men’s basketball tournament semifinals.
Boynton said he benefited from Gators coach Billy Donovan’s halftime message. The senior guard’s second-half surge helped Florida end its season-long frustration in close games.
“He challenged me to come out and play with confidence,” Boynton said. “Honestly he did challenge me, and I think I tried to step up to it.”
The top-seeded Gators (26-6) advanced to the championship game Sunday against Ole Miss. Alabama (21-12), the No. 4 seed, will spend Sunday waiting to learn its fate from the NCAA selection committee.
Most mock brackets had Alabama on the wrong side of the bubble at the start of the week. Alabama went 12-6 in conference play but hurt its cause by going 1-5 in December, including home nonconference losses to Mercer and Tulane.
“I’ll just go to sleep, wake up tomorrow and see what they choose,” Alabama guard Trevor Releford said. “Whatever they choose, we go from there.”
Boynton scored all 16 of his points during a seven-minute span. Patric Young had 13 points and nine rebounds, and Mike Rosario added 10 points. Releford scored 12 points, and Nick Jacobs and Trevor Lacey each added 11 for Alabama.
Alabama led 37-27 with 16:05 left before Florida reeled off 15 straight points in the next five minutes. In the teams’ lone regular-season meeting, Florida rallied from eight points down in the final 12½ minutes to win 64-52 on March 2 in Gainesville.
That result represented Florida’s narrowest margin of victory all season before Saturday. The Gators entered the game leading the nation in scoring margin (plus-18.9), but they’re 0-5 in games decided by six points or fewer.
“We know that to win our games in the NCAA tournament, games are going to be close, so we have to consistently close out games,” Boynton said.
This game featured the SEC’s best scoring defenses, with Florida (53.4) and Alabama (58.9) allowing fewer than 60 points. And it started out as a defensive struggle. Seven minutes in, Florida led 6-2.
But after missing four of its first five shots and committing four turnovers in the first 5½ minutes, Alabama’s offense found a rhythm. The Crimson Tide shot 55 percent (11 of 20) in the first half against a Florida team that hadn’t allowed anyone to shoot 50 percent or better this season.
The Tide stayed hot early in the second half and extended its lead to 37-27 when Releford sank two free throws with 16:05 remaining.
That’s when Boynton took over.
He entered the day shooting just 38.9 percent, making him a subject of criticism for much of his senior season. He shot 1 of 7 and scored two points Friday in the quarterfinal victory over LSU, but he didn’t get down on himself and maintained the support of his teammates.
“Our team loves Kenny Boynton,” Donovan said. “When people watch and the ball doesn’t go in the basket, it’s very, very easy to point fingers and be critical. But I would say that maybe of anybody on our team, Kenny Boynton is truly loved inside of our team. He’s a great teammate. He does want to win. He wants to make every shot he takes. He doesn’t intentionally try to miss. But he’s gone through a little bit of a tough shooting period.”
That tough period might have ended Saturday.
First, the senior guard made a pair of free throws to cut Alabama’s lead to 37-31. Next, he made a driving basket. Then, Boynton sank a 3-pointer. He followed that with a fast-break layup that gave Florida the lead.
Boynton closed the flurry by going into the paint and making a shot off the glass that extended Florida’s advantage to 40-37 with 12:02 remaining.
“My teammates found me in transition,” he said. “Basically, I didn’t get more aggressive or anything. The floor just opened up more.”