SUNRISE, Fla. (AP)—The Florida Gators trailed by six points in the second half when head cheerleader Joakim Noah emerged from a timeout huddle waving, clapping and shouting, “Let’s go!”
The crowd roared, and eventually the Gators got going.
They played 32 minutes before they led, went five minutes without a basket down the stretch and still rallied to beat Alabama-Birmingham 75-70 on Saturday night in the Orange Bowl Classic.
The third-ranked Gators went 7-for-8 from the free throw line over the final 2:11.
“That situation they have been in before,” UAB coach Mike Davis said. “You could look in their eye and see there was no panic at all.”
The defending national champion Gators (12-2) went ahead to stay when Taurean Green made two free throws with 1:32 left for a 70-69 lead, only their second of the game.
A steal and layup by Green increased the margin to three. Al Horford made one free throw and Corey Brewer added two to close out the Gators’ fifth consecutive victory.
“We didn’t shoot particularly well,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “Our frontcourt guys missed some baskets around the lane we normally make. But we found a way to win.”
Alabama-Birmingham (8-6) led by 11 points in both halves.
“We realize we’re going to get every team’s best shot,” Donovan said. “That’s the best game UAB has played, but I’m not surprised. We’re getting that from everybody.”
Florida increased its defensive intensity down the stretch, and the Blazers missed their final six shots from the field.
“The last four minutes, all we talked about was to lock up and get stops,” Brewer said.
“We got a little confused at the end,” UAB forward Jeremy Mayfield said. “We got out of our game plan and were throwing it everywhere.”
Nebraska won the first game of the doubleheader, beating Miami 82-67. The games at the BankAtlantic Center drew a record crowd of 15,709, most of them cheering for the Gators.
Brewer scored 19 points for Florida, which made 22 of 26 free throws, while Green added 18 points. Noah had 13 points, 13 rebounds and four blocked shots.
The game was the Gators’ first since their impressive romp over Ohio State last Saturday.
“Most teams that play Florida get blown out, but we stayed right with them,” said Mayfield, who had 15 points and nine rebounds.
Wen Mukubu scored 20 points and Paul Delaney III added 17 for the Blazers.
“In the first half, it seemed they didn’t miss any shots,” Green said. “But we stayed calm. We knew we had a long game and had to grind it out.”
The Blazers shot 50 percent in the first half, including 6-for-11 from 3-point range, but the Gators held them to 31 percent in the second half.
“For 38 minutes I thought we did a great job,” Davis said. “When you play a team of that caliber, it’s tough to play for 40 minutes. They wore us down. They’re so big and physical and strong. We had some turnovers that were from fatigue more than anything.”
UAB led 44-33 when the Gators began their comeback. Noah scored on a Globetrotter-style breakaway dunk, passing the ball from one hand to the other behind his back before he shot, to make it 46-42.
Lee Humphrey’s only points, a 3-pointer, cut the deficit to 50-47. Another 3 by Green pulled the Gators even at 55, and Chris Richard’s layup gave Florida its first lead, 59-58 with 7:43 left.
The Gators made only one field goal in their first 10 possessions, fell behind 16-5 and trailed the rest of the first half. Brewer banked in an off-balance 3-pointer with five seconds left to cut the deficit to 40-33.
“Sometimes we’re going to have to make up ground,” Brewer said. “You’re not going to blow everybody out.”