GAINESVILLE -- After playing much of the season without a complete roster, Saturday’s game against Alabama was supposed to feature a full-strength Florida team.
Forward Will Yeguete returned to action after missing six games following knee surgery, guard Michael Frazier returned from a concussion he suffered in a win against Arkansas on Feb. 23 and forward Casey Prather played with a bandage above his left eye after getting bloodied in the Gators’ loss against Tennessee on Tuesday.
Things didn’t go quite as planned.
Yeguete and Frazier barely made an impact and the Gators struggled against the Tide until Prather gave the team a boost late in the second half, allowing No. 8 Florida to outlast Alabama 64-52 on Saturday in the O’Connell Center.
“I was really, really disappointed in our team for a good portion of the game,” UF coach Billy Donovan said. “Give Alabama credit. They came in really focused and ready to play. … I thought our team was emotionally drained. I thought we were exhausted. I thought we were distracted. I thought we became easily frustrated.”
Combined, Frazier and Yeguete played just 18 minutes and picked up one rebound. Frazier missed the last two days of practice with back spasms and Yeguete was “absolutely petrified” to return to action on his surgically repaired knee, Donovan said. That, coupled with a noon tipoff time, led to what Donovan called a mixture of emotions that hampered Florida.
“People are saying, ‘Oh, they’re back, they’re back,’ — they’re not back,” Donovan said. “None of them are back. It’s going to be a long process. … We were a step slow, but I give our guys a lot of credit that they didn’t wilt. They battled and they fought and they found a way to win.”
UF (23-5, 13-3 Southeastern Conference) was undefeated on its own court coming in but faced its largest home deficit of the season when Alabama (19-10, 11-5 SEC) took an 8-point lead with just more than 12 minutes to play. But Prather found center Patric Young for an alley-oop slam and then scored on a breakaway layup to cut the Tide’s lead to four and cue the Gators’ comeback.
Prather also came up big for Florida with four second-half free throws. He was perfect on four attempts at the stripe after making just 3 of 11 coming into Saturday. He finished just one rebound shy of a double-double with 10 points, nine rebounds and an assist.
The win gives Florida a two-game lead over Alabama and Kentucky in the race for the SEC regular-season title.
“He was the only guy that had a level of energy,” Donovan said of Prather. “If he didn’t play well, we probably would have had a hard time winning the game. … I thought Alabama outplayed us. They were more prepared than us.”