Florida trotted off to the locker room trailing again.
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The 12th-ranked Gators had ’em right where they wanted ’em.
With Kenny Boynton scoring 24 points and Erving Walker adding 17, Florida recovered from another slow start to beat Vanderbilt 77-66 in the Southeastern Conference semifinals Saturday.
For the second straight day, and seventh time this season, the Gators came back from a halftime deficit.
”They got hot in the second half and made some tough ones, but that’s what they do,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. ”That’s what they’ve done all season. That’s why they’re the league champion.”
The regular-season champion Gators (26-6) matched their biggest comeback of the season, overcoming a 12-point deficit early in the second half. They will meet Kentucky in the championship game Sunday.
Florida beat the Commodores (23-10) at their 3-point game. Boynton hit five shots from beyond the arc, Walker made three and the Gators finished 11 of 21 overall.
Vanderbilt was just 6 of 33, and SEC leading scorer John Jenkins had a particularly tough day. Coming off a 29-point performance in the quarterfinals, he looked as though an ailing left foot was bothering him more than it did against Mississippi State. He scored just 10 points on 3-of-15 shooting.
Jeffery Taylor led the Commodores with 21 points.
On Friday, the Gators were down 34-29 to Tennessee before putting up a 56-point second half – their highest-scoring period of the season.
This one was nearly as good, equaling their comeback from 12 points down against Kansas State on Dec. 18.
Vanderbilt was up 36-28 at the break and pushed it to 40-28 in the opening minutes of the second half. But coach Billy Donovan has gotten used to slow starts. Once Walker and Boynton began making shots, the Gators were hard to stop.
”It looks like we’re waiting to see what we’ve got to do instead of coming out and doing what we need to do,” Donovan said. ”But they’re a resilient group.”
Early on, Walker carried the rally almost single-handedly. He made a couple of 3s, then back-to-back jumpers from a little closer and finally a layup, banked in high off the glass, after a steal by Scottie Wilbekin. Just like that, Vandy’s big lead had been whittled to 48-47.
Down the stretch, Boynton and Walker teamed up to help put away the Commodores. Boynton knocked down a pair of 3-pointers sandwiched around a nifty reverse lay-in flying off the baseline. Then Walker swished a 3 from the corner, stretching Florida’s lead to 68-61 with 3:47 remaining.
Vandy called timeout. Boynton and Walker chest-bumped each other and hopped toward the bench.
”Taylor was on my back the whole game,” Walker said. ”I just tried to stay patient and get in good spots for shots and my players were able to find me. We’ve just got to keep shooting with confidence.”
Both he and Boynton knew they had a green light from Donovan to keep firing away.
”We love to take those shots,” Boynton said. ”I think he gives us the freedom to take those shots because he knows we can make them. We needed somebody to give us an offensive spark. Erving started it out and I just tried to keep it going.”
The Commodores resorted to desperately flinging up 3s at the end. Jenkins was just 2 of 12 outside the arc, and the Gators had someone in his face at all times. Boynton even swatted one jumper away, which led Jenkins to plead for a foul. The official said Boynton got nothing but ball — and it looked as though he was right.
Vanderbilt was denied just its second trip to the final of the SEC tournament, but is still considered a lock for the NCAA tournament.
The Commodores were playing their third game in less than 48 hours, but the players insisted that it wasn’t a matter to running out of gas against a better-rested team. Florida had a bye in the first round.
”There’s no fatigue in this kind of game. It’s a survival game,” said Festus Ezeli, who had 17 points. ”They just executed better than us at the end of the game.”
The Commodores won their only appearance in SEC title game, back in 1951.
The drought goes on for another year.
”They certainly outplayed us in the second half, but I was proud of our team,” Stallings said. ”I thought we competed very well. We had a hard time making shots. We just did not shoot the ball very well.”