GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Early in the game as he sat on the bench waiting for his first chance to get on the floor, there was something evident to Casey Prather.
Prather said he turned to fellow reserve Will Yeguete and the two discussed how their teammates needed an energy boost.
And no, they were not talking about a Red Bull.
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“We looked a little dead offensively and defensively,” Prather said.
While Yeguete was clearly not 100 percent in his first game in nearly a month due to a knee injury, Gators coach Billy Donovan sensed Prather could make a difference in Saturday’s SEC showdown with Alabama.
Donovan got a glimpse of what was to come on Prather’s only bucket of the first half when the junior forward missed a shot from the left side of the basket, grabbed the offensive rebound on the other side of the hoop, and then went up over a pair of Alabama defenders to score.
Donovan had already seen enough to know the Gators could be in trouble.
“Scottie [Wilbekin] wasn’t himself, I didn’t think Kenny Boynton was himself, Patric [Young] wasn’t himself, Murph (Erik Murphy) looked a step slow,” Donovan said. “It was just one of those games.”
Thankfully for the Gators, Prather was not only himself but a better version than usual, finishing with 10 points and nine rebounds in Florida’s 64-52 win over the Crimson Tide.
He made a difference in the second half when Alabama used a 14-4 run to take a 45-37 lead, the biggest deficit the Gators have faced all season at the O’Connell Center.
As the tide turned in the game, Prather was in the middle of several key plays, replacing guard Mike Rosario for much of the second half.
First, he drove to the basket and tossed a lob to Young that woke up the crowd and snapped a 6-0 Alabama run to trim the lead to 45-39 with 11:03 left.
“I was just trying to get into the lane and I saw my big man rolling and their big man was kind of staying with me — kind of hesitant what to do — and I just threw it up to the rim,” Prather said.
On Florida’s next score, it was Prather taking a dump pass from Boynton and laying it in to trim Alabama’s lead to 45-41.
Following a bucket by Alabama’s Nick Jacobs to put the Crimson Tide up by six again, Prather was fouled and hit a pair of free throws. On Alabama’s next possession, Prather grabbed a rebound off Trevor Releford’s missed 3-pointer that led to a three-point play from Wilbekin.
Suddenly, it was a one-point game (47-46 Alabama). You might have guessed by now that Prather was involved when the Gators grabbed the lead for good. Prather, who entered the game shooting 55 percent (11 of 20) from the free-throw line, made two more free throws with 7:48 remaining to give Florida a 48-47 advantage.
The Gators never trailed again, using a 19-2 run to take a 56-47 lead when Young hit a pair of free throws with 3:18 remaining.
If Donovan handed out game balls at the end of every game, Prather would have certainly received one Saturday.
“Casey, thank God, gave us good minutes,” Donovan said. “If he didn’t play well, we probably would have had a hard time winning the game. He was the only guy that had a level of energy.”
Said Alabama coach Anthony Grant: “They have a lot of very good pieces and he’s one of them.”
Prather’s performance continued a recent trend for the 6-foot-8, athletic player from Jackson, Tenn. Prior to this season, Prather’s most memorable game came in the NCAA Tournament last March when he scored a career-high 14 points in a win over Virginia, adding a highlight-reel worthy dunk for good measure.
However, with Yeguete slowed, Prather has now scored in double figures in four of the last seven games. He is averaging 6.8 points and 3.7 rebounds, easily career highs for one of Florida’s key reserves.
“He struggled his first two years, a lot of thoughts going through his head,” Young said. “He felt a lot of pressure, everyone wants to play — everyone wants to perform well. This year he has just been doing his job.”
Prather said last year’s experience of filling in for an injured Yeguete in the postseason was the catalyst for his breakthrough. The game is now coming more naturally.
“It gave me a chance to go out there and play with my team and feel comfortable,” Prather said. “It was definitely important just to get back into rhythm. I’m very confident in my game. I feel like I could have done that last year, too, just not every time. It’s just happening to come to me right now.”
There were questions about how effective Prather would be Saturday considering he left Tuesday’s loss at Tennessee with about three minutes remaining with blood dripping off a cut above his left eye.
Prather collided with Rosario going for a loose ball and took the worst of it. He missed eight games earlier this season, first to a concussion suffered in the preseason and then a high-ankle sprain.
In the end, there was nothing to worry about. Prather’s head and game were fine Saturday.
“I was so relieved because I’ve been getting hit in the head every day and I feel like every time I get in the head that I’m just hoping it’s not a concussion,” he said. “I’m just glad it’s not anything more serious.”
So was Donovan. The Gators needed Prather’s energy boost Saturday more than ever.
“I thought Casey, for whatever really, was really focused and locked in,” Donovan said.