NASHVILLE - Florida finally showed it can win a close game. All it takes is for senior 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 a Southeastern Conference semifinal.
Boynton said he benefited from Gators coach Billy Donovan's halftime message to him. 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 No. 3 seed Mississippi (25-8), which defeated Vanderbilt 64-52 in the other semifinal. Alabama (21-12), the tournament's No. 4 seed, will spend Sunday waiting to learn its fate from the NCAA tournament selection committee.
Most mock brackets had Alabama on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble at the start of the week. Alabama went 12-6 in conference play during the regular season 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 7-minute span. Patric Young had 13 points and nine rebounds for the Gators. 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 remaining before Florida reeled off 15 straight points over the next 5 minutes. In the lone regular-season meeting between the two teams, Florida rallied from eight points down in the final 12 1/2 minutes to win 64-52 on March 2 in Gainesville.
That 64-52 result represented Florida's narrowest margin of victory all season before Saturday. The Gators entered Saturday 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 out 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 two best scoring defenses, with Florida (53.4) and Alabama (58.9) allowing fewer than 60 points per game. And it started out as a defensive struggle. Seven minutes into the game, Florida led 6-2.
But after missing four of its first five shots and committing four turnovers in the first 5 1/2 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.
"We were playing good defense," Young said. "They were knocking down some tough twos, some tough threes. But we knew they can't hold that up the whole (game) because they haven't been doing that the whole year. It's been tough for them to score in the halfcourt the whole season."
That's when Boynton took over the game.
Boynton entered the day shooting just 38.9 percent, making him a subject of criticism for much of his senior season. Boynton shot 1 of 7 and scored two points Friday in an SEC 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 up with a fast-break layup that gave Florida the lead. Boynton closed this stunning 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," Boynton said. "Basically, I didn't get more aggressive or anything. The floor just opened up more."
Boynton added a basket that put Florida ahead 47-40 with 9:40 left and a 3-pointer that made 50-42 with 8:11 remaining. Alabama wouldn't cut the margin below four points the rest of the way.
"This was a grind-it-out game," Rosario said. "This was a 40-minute game. Guys knew Kenny needed to step up for us in the second half. I felt he took on that challenge. When that run happened, it just fed off positive energy to all (his) teammates. I felt everyone on the team embraced that."