NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Florida finally showed it can win a close game. All it takes is for senior guard Kenny Boynton to answer his coach's challenge.
Held scoreless for the first 25 minutes, Boynton had 11 consecutive points during a critical 15-0 run Saturday as No. 13 Florida erased a 10-point, second-half deficit to beat Alabama 61-51 in a Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinal.
Boynton said he benefited from Gators coach Billy Donovan's halftime message to him. The senior guard's second-half surge helped Florida end its season-long frustration in close games.
"He challenged me to come out and play with confidence," Boynton said. "Honestly he did challenge me, and I think I tried to step up to it."
The top-seeded Gators (26-6) advanced to the championship game today against No. 3 seed Mississippi (25-8), which defeated Vanderbilt 64-52 in the other semifinal. Alabama (21-12), the tournament's No. 4 seed, will spend today waiting to learn its fate from the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
Most mock brackets had Alabama on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble at the start of the week. Alabama went 12-6 in conference play during the regular season but hurt its cause by going 1-5 in December, including home nonconference losses to Mercer and Tulane.
"I'll just go to sleep, wake up tomorrow and see what they choose," Alabama guard Trevor Lacey said. "Whatever they choose, we go from there."
Boynton scored all 16 of his points during a 7-minute span. Patric Young had 13 points and nine rebounds for the Gators. Mike Rosario added 10 points. Trevor Releford scored 12 points, and Nick Jacobs and Lacey each added 11 for Alabama.
Alabama led 37-27 with 16:05 remaining before Florida reeled off 15 consecutive points over the next 5 minutes. In the lone regular-season meeting between the two teams, Florida rallied from eight points down in the final 12½ minutes to win 64-52 on March 2 in Gainesville.
That 64-52 result represented Florida's narrowest margin of victory all season before Saturday. The Gators entered Saturday leading the nation in scoring margin (plus-18.9), but they're 0-5 in games decided by six points or fewer.
"We know that to win out games in the NCAA Tournament, games are going to be close, so we have to consistently close out games," Boynton said.
Boynton entered the day shooting just 38.9 percent, making him a subject of criticism for much of his senior season. Boynton shot 1 of 7 and scored two points Friday in an SEC quarterfinal victory over LSU, but he didn't get down on himself and maintained the support of his teammates.
"Our team loves Kenny Boynton," Donovan said. "When people watch and the ball doesn't go in the basket, it's very, very easy to point fingers and be critical. But I would say that maybe of anybody on our team, Kenny Boynton is truly loved inside of our team. He's a great teammate. He does want to win. He wants to make every shot he takes. He doesn't intentionally try to miss. But he's gone through a little bit of a tough shooting period."
That tough period might have ended Saturday.
MISSISSIPPI 64, VANDERBILT 52
The Mississippi Rebels can breathe much easier on the edge of coach Andy Kennedy's first NCAA Tournament berth in his seventh season.
Now they are setting their sights on a Southeastern Conference Tournament championship first.
Marshall Henderson scored 23 points as Mississippi beat Vanderbilt 64-52 Saturday in the SEC Tournament semifinals, putting the Rebels into the title game for the first time since 2001.
"We know we made the NCAA Tournament now," Henderson said. "If we didn't, that would the biggest snub ever ... We know we made it. We're in the championship. We might as well win it and get us a fat ring."
The third-seeded Rebels (25-8) came here needing wins to sharpen their postseason resume and finally reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002. Now they will play No. 13 Florida, a 61-51 winner over Alabama, in today's championship game, where the winner advances to the NCAA Tournament automatically.
Kennedy ticked off the Rebels' record and 14 SEC wins, including four in a row and two in Nashville, while pointing out not many teams still are playing.
"So I feel pretty confident about our opportunity to get the albatross from around the neck for this program as it relates to the NCAA tournament," Kennedy said.
Senior Reginald Buckner also had 15 points, and senior Murphy Holloway added 12 for Ole Miss. The Rebels now have won six of seven overall.
"There's very few times in your life that you have a chance to compete for a championship, so that's where I want their focus to be," Kennedy said. "I want them to play free and loose and understanding that on Sunday that we have the makings of a party. But on Saturday, you have a chance to do something special that no one can take away from you the rest of your life."
No. 10 seeded Vanderbilt (16-17), the defending tournament champion, lost for only the second time in eight games. Kedren Johnson had a team-high 12 points.
Kennedy, the Rebels' winningest coach, has at least 20 victories in four consecutive seasons and became the fifth SEC coach to win 20 in six of his first seven seasons. But another missed NCAA Tournament could have jeopardized his job security.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings immediately congratulated Kennedy.
"I'm not a bracketology fan, but I would assume that they're safely in the NCAA tournament," Stallings said. "And they should be, in my opinion."