Casey Prather bounces back with big game to help Gators beat Alabama

Florida Gators forward Casey Prather (24) reacts after scoring against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the second half at Stephen C. O'Connell Center.

Kim Klement/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Billy Donovan saw enough warning signs to be concerned.

In the No. 3-ranked Gators previous two games, leading scorer Casey Prather scored 12 points combined, or nearly four points below his season average (15.7) entering Saturday’s game against Alabama.

So when Donovan arrived at the O’Connell Center on Saturday morning for Florida’s shootaround, he wasn’t too optimistic about having Prather in the lineup against the Crimson Tide. Prather did not practice Friday to rest his sore ankle.

"I didn’t know if we were going to play him," Donovan said. "It’s one of those things where it becomes a mental issue for him. He thinks about it. That’s just kind of the way he is. It’s got nothing to do with him not being a tough kid or him not being able to play through pain.

"It gets more into the fact that he doesn’t feel confidence-wise that he is capable of doing the things he knows he needs to do."

When Prather is in top form, the Wooden Award nominee is Florida’s most dynamic playmaker around the basket. He drives and slashes and jumps his way to the rim, often scoring on dunks or acrobatic shots.

But after suffering a mild ankle sprain at Mississippi State on Jan. 30, Prather lost some of his nerve. Instead of attacking the basket like he did while scoring in double-figures for 18 consecutive games, he would pass the ball or step back from a defender.

Donovan saw slippage in his defense because he wasn’t moving as swiftly, especially in Tuesday’s win over Missouri.

Still winning

"I can’t push off the floor as well as I want to or attack as fast as I usually do," Prather said Saturday. "It’s more of a mental thing right now."

The 6-foot-6 senior forward apparently cleared a mental hurdle in Saturday’s 78-69 win over the Crimson Tide.

Prather looked like his old self. Not on every basket, but enough to tell teammate Scottie Wilbekin that Prather is getting closer to himself.

"Every day," Wilbekin said.

Prather scored 15 points Saturday and made 7 of 11 shots. He added a team-high six rebounds and three assists, playing 33 minutes, second only to Wilbekin’s 34 minutes logged in the Gators’ 15th consecutive win.

"Coach wanted me to just play all-out," Prather said.

Box score

It was Prather who told Donovan that he wanted to give it a go Saturday after he scored only five points in 21 minutes against Missouri.

Donovan put him into the starting lineup and when Prather came to the bench for the first time with 15:28 left in the first half and Florida leading 14-7, he stopped Prather to ask how he felt.

"I feel fine. I can go," Prather replied.

That was all Donovan needed to hear.

"We had talked about just resting him and giving him time and see what happens in our next game," Donovan said. "When he knows he can do things physically, it just adds to his confidence. It’s got nothing to do with him making shots. It’s got to do with him moving.

"When he can’t move like he wants to move, I think he knows he is putting our team in jeopardy and I think that eats him alive and kills him."

Prather has suffered various injuries the past two seasons that have slowed him down, including a pair of concussions and high ankle sprain last season. He missed two games earlier this season with a bone bruise on his knee.

But nothing seems to keep him down long.

He stood before a swarm of TV cameras Saturday afternoon with sweat dripping off his forehead and arms. Once he finished Prather knew a bag of ice was waiting for his ankle to arrive.

However, he walked back into the locker room in a much better frame of mind than when he exited it a couple of hours earlier.

"I felt good out there," he said. "It’s not 100 percent, but I can play through it."