No. 7 Gators survive road test at Auburn
Published: Saturday, January 18, 2014 at 5:54 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 18, 2014 at 10:09 p.m.
AUBURN, Ala. — On an afternoon when Florida didn’t shoot straight or play sound man defense, the No. 7 Gators were searching for answers to avoid an embarrassing upset.
The Gators found it with some stops in their zone defense and a big shot from senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin.
That, plus an unexpected big day from senior forward Casey Prather, propelled Florida to a 68-61 win Saturday at Auburn before 8,683 at Auburn Arena that once again tested UF’s resolve in a close game.
But after Auburn freshman guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen hit a jumper to cut UF’s lead to 62-61 with 1:59 left, Florida played with the poise expected from a veteran team with four senior starters. Wilbekin hit a fall-away jumper to put Florida up 64-61. After Auburn junior KT Harrell missed a 3-point attempt, Patric Young came up with the rebound. Wilbekin went back to the line, making 1 of 2, and then Young came up with a block and strip of Harrell with 19 seconds left.
Young said he resisted the temptation to leave his feet on the play, stuffing Harrell like a volleyball player at the net.
“I was able to get in position to be aggressive, to make a play,” Young said. “We don’t like to put ourselves in a position where we have to get stops like that late, but we’ve done a better job staying connected late in games in those situations.”
Florida held Auburn scoreless for the final 1:59 and made 4 of 6 free throws during that span to close out the game. Before that point, Florida had no answers in stopping Auburn’s high-scoring dynamic duo of senior guard Chris Denson and Harrell. Denson scored 21 points, with Harrell adding 18.
“We played zone the last three or four minutes and that helped,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “We were able to tag Harrell and Denson a little bit better.”
Prather led Florida (15-2, 4-0 SEC) with 21 points in his first game back after sitting out two games with a bone bruise in his knee. Wilbekin added 16 points, while Young had 13 points and six rebounds to lead UF to its ninth straight win.
Prather kept Florida in the game early, scoring 16 of his 21 points in the first half. Going into the game, Donovan said he didn’t know what to expect from the 6-foot-6 forward from Jackson, Tenn., given his limited practice time this week due to his knee issue.
But as UF’s first sub off the bench, Prather made an immediate impact, scoring 14 of UF’s first 27 points on a variety of pretty drives and pull-up jumpers to put Florida up 27-14.
“That was pretty insane,” Young said. “The guy just goes out there and has a killer mindset to attack the rim, to finish and just to get open and knock down shots.”
Prather said he felt no-ill effects of the knee bruise during the game. Prather, UF’s leading scorer going into the Auburn game at 17 point per game, has scored in double figures in all 15 games he’s appeared in this season.
“Coach asked me ‘Are you going to baby it, or are you going to play?’ ” Prather said. “I told coach I was going to play.”
But even with Prather scoring at will early, Florida couldn’t sustain its momentum for the entire first half. Up 27-14, Auburn (8-7, 0-4) answered with a 14-0 run, with included a corner 3-pointer from Harrell on an in-bounds play and a 3-pointer from Denson that cut UF’s lead to 27-26. Harrell then added a pair of free throws to put Auburn up 28-27.
“We had a couple of traveling violations and we let them right back into the game,” Donovan said. “We had a chance to go into halftime with a significant lead, but we didn’t handle the last 3:30 or so very well as a team. It is an opportunity for us to learn or get better than that.”
Donovan said UF’s man defense “didn’t do his team any favors” which prompted the Gators to switch to zone late. Florida also didn’t shoot the ball well from the perimeter, going 3 of 9 (33.3 percent) from 3-point range after hitting 15 3-pointers in the same building last season. Coming off a career-high 21-point game against Georgia, Florida sophomore guard Michael Frazier II was held scoreless against Auburn. Frazier lofted an air-ball on his first 3-point attempt and it appeared to affect his confidence. He finished 0 of 2 from 3-point range with two turnovers and three fouls.
Dorian Finney-Smith also air-balled a 3-point attempt for the Gators, but Florida maintained its lead in the second half by outscoring Auburn 32-24 in the paint.
“Overall, we got it done,” Young said. “We probably could have done it in a better fashion, but a win is a win.”
Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.