GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — No. 3 Florida has won with defense most of the season.
The Gators showed Saturday they can pull out games on the other end of the court, too.
Scottie Wilbekin scored 16 points, leading all five starters in double figures, and Florida beat Alabama 78-69 for its 15th straight victory.
The Gators handled the Tide for the second time in 16 days and extended a school record for consecutive home wins to 29.
“If you play defense the way we did tonight, you’re not going to win,” coach Billy Donovan said. “Thank God we had some offense today that helped us.”
Florida (21-2, 10-0 Southeastern Conference) shot a blistering 62 percent from the field and finished with a season-high 22 assists.
The Gators trailed by seven late in the first half before taking over the game in the paint and in transition. That opened things up on the perimeter for Wilbekin and Michael Frazier II.
Wilbekin was 3-for-5 shooting from behind the arc, making all three in the second half. Frazier was 3 for 8 from the 3-point range.
Frazier finished with 14 points, joining Wilbekin, Casey Prather (15), Will Yeguete (12) and Patric Young (11) in double figures. It was the first time all five of Florida’s starters topped 10 points since Nov. 21 against Middle Tennessee.
“We have a balanced team, and anyone can beat you on any given night,” Prather said.
Prather, the team’s leading scorer, failed to reach double figures the last two games while dealing with a sprained left ankle. He returned to form against Alabama even though Donovan wasn’t sure he would play a few hours before the tip. Donovan gave Prather the option of playing or resting, and he chose to give it a go.
“It’s got nothing to do with him not being a tough kid or he can’t play through pain,” Donovan said. “It gets more into the fact that he doesn’t feel confidence-wise that he’s capable of doing the things he knows he can do. When he gets to that place, he really gets mentally taken out because he knows he can’t do certain things.
“When he knows he can do things physically, it adds to his confidence. When he can’t move like he wants to move, I think he knows he’s putting our team in jeopardy, and that eats him alive and kills him.”
Trevor Releford led the Tide (9-14, 3-7) with 25 points on 7-for-10 shooting. He was 4 for 6 from behind the 3-point line and perfect on seven free throws.
Releford scored 16 points in the first half, carrying Alabama for much of the afternoon. His 3-pointer put the Tide up 28-21, silencing the sold-out O’Connell Center.
Alabama shot 61 percent in the opening half and went 5 for 7 from behind the arc, giving the defensive-minded Donovan plenty to talk about at halftime. The Gators responded with an effective press, made 3-pointers and a heavy dose of post play that seemingly wore down the Tide.
“They’re at their best when they’re in transition,” Tide coach Anthony Grant said. “From an offensive standpoint, they took us out of some things that we were able to get there in the first half.”
Florida went on a 25-8 run that turned a deficit into a double-digit lead. The Tide ended up losing its four straight and sixth in the last seven games.
“This program can’t do anything but go up,” Releford said. “It’s just a process. Right now we’re losing a game, but I feel as a team we’re getting better and Coach is helping us with that.”
Chris Walker, Florida’s highly touted freshman who became eligible this week, played just 4 minutes in his second collegiate game. He finished with four points, two fouls and a rebound. Donovan said he hopes to get Walker more playing time.
For as dominant as Florida has been recently, the team’s toughest test comes next week. The Gators play at Tennessee on Tuesday night and then at No. 18 Kentucky on Saturday. Those games could go a long way to determining how Florida finishes in the conference and what kind of seed it gets in next month’s NCAA tournament.
“I don’t think we played great,” Yeguete said. “We got it done, but we didn’t play great. We know we’ve got to do a better job if we want to win in Knoxville on Tuesday.”
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