NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Gators needed something good to happen. So did Kenny Boynton, in the worst way.
Florida coach Billy Donovan could tell Boynton needed a lift at halftime of Florida’s 61-51 win over Alabama on Saturday.
Donovan didn’t send roses.
“I went after him pretty good,” Donovan said of his halftime challenge. “He got deflated [in the first half]. I told him, ‘Hey, you’re a senior in college right now. It’s time to fight. You’ve always fought.’ “
The Gators (26-6) trailed at halftime for only the fifth time this season and Boynton had not scored. The senior guard missed all three of his first-half shots, and making matters worse, Alabama’s Trevor Lacey, Boynton’s primary defensive assignment, had eight points and a pair of 3-pointers at the break.
The situation got worse before it got better as the Crimson Tide opened a 10-point lead (37-27) early in the second half. The Gators appeared on the verge of losing this SEC tournament fight without Boynton ever throwing a punch.
And then . . . Kapow! Boom! Bang! Bam!
By the time Boynton finished tossing shots into the basket, Alabama staggered up and down the court wondering what just hit it. A 15-0 Florida run turned the 10-point deficit into a 42-37 lead.
Other than for a pair of Will Yeguete free throws to start the run and a Patric Young basket to close it, the surge was all Boynton, who scored 11 consecutive points during one stretch to finish with a game-high 16.
“He had that look,” Donovan said.
Young called it something else.
“You can just tell by the way he is moving. He has kind of a swagger about him when he knows he is not going to get stopped, when he thinks the ball is going to go in every time,” Young said
Whatever you want to call it, Boynton had it.
Or more like, he rediscovered it.
The second all-time leading scorer in school history, Boynton scored only two points in Friday’s win over LSU. He contributed in other ways, chipping in with seven assists.
Still, Boynton made just 1 of 7 shots Friday and entered the matchup with Alabama shooting 34 percent (45 of 132) over the last 13 games, including 26 percent (19 of 73) from 3-point range.
Nothing in the first half Saturday — Boynton was 0-for-3 shooting — suggested that he would dribble off the final seconds of the Gators’ victory with a wide smile on his face.
The tide turned in the game and for Boynton when he followed up Yeguete’s two free throws with a pair of his own, trimming Alabama’s lead to 37-31.
Next, Boynton rebounded a Lacey miss and went coast-to-coast for a layup to cut Alabama’s lead to four. Next possession, Boynton nailed a 3-pointer and suddenly, the scoreboard read: Alabama 37, Florida 36.
Boynton wasn’t done, though, his layup on a pass from teammate Michael Frazier put the Gators in front 38-37 with 13:07 left in the game. Boynton capped his personal 11-0 run with a jump shot at 12:02 left, giving Florida a 40-37 lead.
Alabama never got closer than two points the rest of the way.
“When he gets it going, he’s really hard to stop,” said Erik Murphy, Boynton’s fellow senior and the shooting star of Friday’s win. “When he gets like that, it’s pretty much just let him go. He’s not going to miss many. It feels good to see him break out like that.”
It felt good for Boynton, too. He admitted some relief at finally finding his stroke. Boynton made 6 of 9 shots in the second half and shot 50 percent from the floor for the first time since a 7-for-11 performance at Mississippi State in late January.
“I’m more happy with the win, you know,” Boynton said. “Yesterday I wouldn’t say I was even down on myself, because as long as we’re winning, I’m good with the team.”
Boynton’s attitude is one of the reasons the Gators were not only thankful for his scoring outburst Saturday, but genuinely glad to see Boynton have perhaps his best game in two months.
“His intentions are always good,” Donovan said. “He’s about the team. He wants to play well. He wants to compete. He’s not selfish, doesn’t take a ton of bad shots.
“I was personally very, very happy for him.”
If Boynton can stay hot, the Gators could, too. His teammates know that better than anyone.
“We want him to be confident,” Yeguete said. “We want him to do good and believe in himself and that’s what he did.”
And give Donovan an assist. That halftime challenge really worked.
“He challenged me to come out and play with confidence,” Boynton said. “Honestly, he did challenge me. I think I tried to step up to it.”