Thursday February 20, 2014Gators Rise Up Late, Stay Unbeaten In SEC with Rally Past Auburn
Michael Frazier's 3-pointer with 41 seconds left was a key play for Gators late in Wednesday's win over Auburn.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When it comes to closing out games this season, Florida’s four seniors -- a group with their nearly 600 combined games of experience that’s tasted 108 wins together -- often have credited their play in the clutch with the fact there’s nothing the veteran group hasn’t seen or been through over their careers.
Which brings us to Wednesday night’s zany 71-66 home win over Auburn.
Point guard Scottie Wilbekin nodded his head. “Yeah, I think we’ve been through this one before -- and lost."
Down by three late and with its usual sticky defense teetering, the second-ranked Gators righted themselves and held the Tigers without a field goal for the final 4:42, storming back behind a money-shot 3-pointer from Michael Frazier and clutch free throws from both Wilbekin and classmate Patric Young to put yet another Southeastern Conference dogfight in the “W” column for a sold-out house of 12,414 at the O’Connell Center.
Young finished with 17 points (all in the second half) and seven rebounds, while fellow senior Casey Prather was good for 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting and nine rebounds. Wilbekin, the SEC Player of the Week after two spectacular performances in road wins at Tennessee and Kentucky, had 15 points and four assists. As a team, UF went 23-for-28 from the free throw line, including 8-for-10 in the last three minutes.
The Tigers were right there, staring down a thunderous upset.
The Gators weren't the team that blinked.
“You have to give Florida credit. It’s what they are. They’re a championship team," Tigers coach Tony Barbee said after the SEC scare of the season. "They don’t beat themselves. ... That’s why they are what they are and why we aspire to be where they are -- because they have a championship mentality.”
For Florida (24-2, 13-0), the victory broke the school record for consecutive wins, a mark that now stands at 18. It was also UF’s 30th straight home win and kept the Gators unbeaten in league play, three games up on second-place Kentucky.
And on a night No. 1 Syracuse lost at home to a six-win Boston College team, UF's hold on the league very easily could have shrunk to two games.
“I thought Auburn outplayed us tonight,” Coach Billy Donovan said. “Just saying it like it is.”
The Tigers (12-12, 4-9), only one game out of the SEC cellar, certainly outshot the Gators. Through 36 minutes, Auburn hit 22 of its 42 shots (52.3 percent) and a sizzling 10-for-18 from the 3-point line (55.5 percent). The guard duo of Chris Denson and KT Harrell came in as one of the highest-scoring backcourts in the country, together averaging more than 40 points. But it was point guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen (17 points) who wore UF out from the long line by hitting five of seven in the first half and staking Auburn to an eight-point lead at intermission.
It was Florida’s biggest halftime deficit of the season, and it made for a quite a scolding from the head coach in the locker room.
“Defensively, we just weren’t there in the first half,” senior forward Will Yeguete said. “They were hot, they weren’t missing and they were getting more confident as the game went on.”
The Tigers brimmed with it even after UF stormed the second-half gates with an 11-3 attack to tie the game and pump up the home crowd. Temporarily.
Auburn answered with clutch shots and a few more 3s -- even worked its lead back to five at 48-43 -- and made it a possession-by-possession blood bath that went down to the wire.
Harrell’s 3-pointer with 4:42 to go gave the Tigers a 62-60 that ballooned to three and turned out to be Auburn's last field goal. The Tigers' lead was trimmed to one, then equaled before two free throws from Denson (15 points, 5 assists) made it Tigers 65-63 with 2:06 to go.
Wilbekin missed two shots on UF’s next possession, but Florida answered with a stop at Auburn’s end inside a minute. In the Gators’ halfcourt, Frazier got the ball at the top of the key and threw a routine pass to Prather at the left elbow. Then something happened.
“I was surprised the defense shifted the way it did. They came to me,” Prather said. “I just threw it back to him.”
Frazier caught the ball in rhythm and swished a 3-point shot -- he was 2-for-8 from the arc at the time -- to give the Gators a 66-65 lead and make the O’Dome really, really loud.
At Auburn’s end, Yeguete fouled Denson on a trap, but he only made one of two from the line, with Young rebounding the miss. For some reason, the Tigers fouled Young immediately in the backcourt -- probably due to his 57-percent free-throw shooting for the season -- and sent him to the line with 19.4 seconds to go.
Young, though, has greatly improved on his free throws of late, and show it again.
Bang, bang. Gators by two.
“I was just telling myself, ‘Be great, strive to be great right now,’ ” said Young, who went 7-for-9 from the line on the night. “I was really thankful that I was the given the opportunity to shoot them and knock them down.”
There was quickly more to be thankful for.
Against UF's three-quarter court pressure, Auburn forward Allen Payne panicked on the inbound pass. The Tigers had no timeouts and as the official got close to a five-second count, Payne sailed his pass toward the left sideline for Harrell, but Harrell was late turning around. The ball skipped off his fingertips and into the UF bench for a turnover at 18.6 seconds, again sending the Dome into a tizzy.
The Tigers had to foul Wilbekin, who sank both his shots with 17.5 seconds left for a four-point lead and the Gators finished off another SEC opponent and improved to 10-2 in games decided by single-digits.
It’s been repeated many times, but bears repeating again: Florida was 0-6 in single-digit games last year.
“Honestly, I don’t think we would have won this game last year,” Frazier said. “It just shows this team’s character and how we’ve grown up from that team we were last year and matured to the team we are this year. We will fight to the end and do what we have to do.”
And that’s exactly what it’s going to take down stretch. As Donovan and his staff have told their players many times, they’re going to get the other guys’ best shot from here on out.
“But I like to look at it the other way,” Donovan said. “Are we going to give our best shot? I didn’t think we did that today. I thought Auburn had a lot more bounce, was more lively, played fearlessly. They attacked. They were confident.”
And they were red-hot shooting the ball ... and it still wasn’t good enough.
“We dug deep, put our heels in the ground and did what we had to do to get that win,” Young said.
Now, the Gators can add that game to the all the things and all the experiences they’ve seen before. Better believe they’ll see it again (and again) Thursday on a video screen.
“It’ll be an interesting film session,” Yeguete said.
Probably an even more interesting practice.
They’ve seen those before, too.