TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (CBSSports) – After watching Florida stumble down the stretch, Billy Donovan challenged his team to come out with more intensity in the SEC tournament.
The conference’s top-seeded squad responded with its best performance in a month.
The 13th-ranked Gators look to build on an impressive showing and take a step closer to adding a tournament title to their regular-season championship when they face Alabama in the semifinals Saturday.
Florida (25-6) split its final six regular-season games after losing three times in its first 24 contests. Donovan held some intense practices in the days leading up to the tournament, and the Gators again resembled a dangerous team for the NCAAs in Friday’s quarterfinals against LSU.
They cruised to an 80-58 victory, shooting 50.9 percent overall and going 11 of 20 from 3-point range. Florida led by as many as 35 and held a 47-27 edge on the boards.
“Overall, I was pleased with the way our team played really from start to finish,” Donovan said. “I thought it was a very good game by them.”
Senior Erik Murphy shook off a knee injury suffered in Wednesday’s practice and had career highs of 27 points and 12 rebounds. He hit 11 of 15 shots and matched a career best with five 3-pointers.
“Shots were falling, so it always feels good,” Murphy said.
Scottie Wilbekin scored 16 and tied a career high with four 3-pointers, and Michael Frazier II had 11 points off the bench.
The finally healthy Gators had such a comfortable lead Donovan was able to play 12, with 11 logging at least four minutes. He used eight players in last Saturday’s 61-57 loss to Kentucky.
The extra rest for the regulars should help the Gators in the quest for their first tournament title since 2007, when they also won the SEC regular-season crown and their second straight national championship.
“Obviously, we want to win the tournament here, but we have to take it one game at a time,” Murphy said.
While Florida is a lock to make the NCAA tournament, fourth-seeded Alabama (21-11) improved its credentials by beating Tennessee 58-48 on Friday in a matchup of bubble teams.
“We’re looking at each game is a great opportunity to get closer to a championship and not necessarily worrying about the NCAA tournament,” guard Trevor Releford said. “We know we take care of what we need to take care of here, I mean, we get a championship, it will be automatic.”
A victory over the Gators, however, might be all the Crimson Tide need to be assured of an NCAA tournament invite.
They gave Florida a scare two weeks ago, but ultimately came up short.
The Gators trailed by eight with 11:04 to go before going on a 15-0 run to pull out a 64-52 victory, their sixth straight in the series. Murphy had a team-high 15 points while Casey Prather provided a spark off the bench by scoring eight of his 10 points during the decisive spurt.
Florida, among the nation’s leaders in scoring defense at 53.4 points per game, held the Tide to five points over the final 10:35.
Alabama is also one of the country’s top defensive teams, allowing an average of 58.9 points. The Crimson Tide limited the Volunteers to 32.1 percent shooting, including 5 of 23 (21.7 percent) from 3-point range.
“Coach (Anthony Grant) told us at the beginning we’re going to go a lot of zone,” Releford said. “Our team is pretty good in the zone.”
The Tide, who haven’t won the SEC tournament since 1991, also frustrated the Gators from the perimeter earlier this month, holding them to 2-of-13 shooting from beyond the arc.
Sophomore Levi Randolph led Alabama on Friday with 15 points – 7.4 better than his season average – while Releford added 14.
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