Gators off to strong SEC start

Florida's Dan Warner drives to the basket in the first half of the Florida-Auburn basketball game at the O'Connell Center in Gainesville. Florida won 72-56.

JARRETT BAKER/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, January 13, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 12, 2008 at 3:52 p.m.

Florida freshman guard Jai Lucas did not intend to carry the end of Saturday's game against Auburn on the shoulders of his slight 5-foot-11 frame.

"It was just a feeling," Lucas said. "We were running our offense and they came up and pressured us and pressured the ball. I just attacked them."

With Lucas scoring seven points during a game-closing 11-0 run, Florida survived its Southeastern Conference home opener with a 72-56 win over Auburn at the O'Connell Center that was closer than the final score indicated.

Florida led just 58-54 when Auburn guard Frank Tolbert hit a spinning runner in the lane with 5:16 remaining. But from that point, Florida held the Tigers without a basket from the floor, while Lucas came up with some clutch shots late to spark the offense.

Lucas and freshman Nick Calathes each led Florida with 16 points, with sophomore center Marreese Speights overcoming a subpar first half with 14 points and eight rebounds. Sophomore Dan Werner, who didn't start because of a sprained ligament in his foot, added 11 points and five rebounds in 30 minutes off the bench.

The Gators led 61-56 with 4:29 left when Speights started the run by following up his own miss with an inside layup to put Florida up 63-56 with 4:07 remaining. Then, off a timeout, Lucas drove to the basket and hit a turn-around in the lane as the shot clock wound down, extending the lead to 65-56 with 3:21 remaining.

"He's always had that in his game," Calathes said. "I feel confident every time he drives the lane."

Off an Auburn missed 3-pointer, Lucas drained an open 3-point attempt on a kick-out pass from teammate Walter Hodge to make the score 68-56 with 2:32 left.

Lucas capped the run with another floater in the lane to make the score 70-56, then had a late steal from Tolbert as he attempted to get a shot off. With 1:16 left, Lucas could have had another open layup but instead pulled the ball out to run out the clock.

"Jai, I thought showed some great toughness going into the lane and making shots for us," Donovan said. "I thought we maybe made it a little hard for him because when they were pressuring us we weren't finding ways to work free."

For the second straight league game, Florida (15-2, 2-0 SEC) executed with poise down the stretch after a shaky start.

The Gators trailed 7-0 early, allowing Auburn to dominate the backboard. The Tigers grabbed eight of the game's first nine rebounds, showing surprising energy after playing just 36 hours earlier against Arkansas.

Muscular Auburn 6-foot-8 forward Quan Prowell had his way inside against Speights, scoring six of Auburn's first 10 points off offensive rebounds. Prowell led the Tigers (9-5, 0-2) with 13 points and nine rebounds.

"They were a physical team, more physical than Alabama," Lucas said. "So it was hard for us to adjust to that."

Auburn outrebounded Florida 27-17 in the first half, converting second-chance points in the first half off 11 offensive rebounds.

"They were quick and tough," Calathes said. "We didn't rotate like coach wanted us to do."

"They were a unique group, hard to block out because they spread the floor with five guards and have great quickness to the basket," Donovan said. "We had a very hard time with them."

From the bad start, Florida regrouped. Werner came off the bench to hit a pair of inside layups to give Florida its first lead, 13-12, with 15:41 remaining.

Neither team shot the ball well early, with Florida three of 13 from 3-point range in the first half and Auburn three-of-17. Florida went into the half ahead 33-29, when freshman Alex Tyus followed a Lucas miss with a dunk just prior to the halftime buzzer.

Florida turned to the press in the second half, forcing turnovers on three of Auburn's first four second-half possessions.

The Gators led 51-39 on a Hodge jumper with 12:19 left in the half but couldn't put the Tigers away. Auburn responded with a 15-7 run to cut the lead to 58-54 and make things interesting before tiring late.

"We just went through a stretch where we got a little tired and couldn't make shots," Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said. "They hurt us in transition."

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