Gators seemed surprised to get Tigers’ best shot


Florida forward Will Yeguete (15) celebrates late in the second half against Auburn at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center on Wednesday. Florida defeated Auburn 71-66.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 at 11:52 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 20, 2014 at 1:03 a.m.

Scottie Wilbekin stood in the middle of the court and asked for one more throaty cheer before he left the floor. Michael Frazier II and DeVon Walker hugged so hard you thought they’d break each other and waltzed away still holding each other.

Who would have thought Florida — mighty, mighty Florida — would be celebrating a win over bottom-feeding Auburn with so much gusto?

Or that the second-ranked Gators would need their fans to bring the noise like they hadn’t needed to all season?

“It was a big factor,” said Auburn’s Chris Denson. “That was the loudest crowd I’ve ever been in.”

It was a crowd that was worn out at the end because this was an every-possession thriller brought on by Auburn’s fight and Florida’s flatness. Billy Donovan said after the game that he felt Auburn outplayed Florida and he’ll get no arguments from anyone who was there.

But these Gators found a way to win their 18th straight and not shake up basketball fans around the country who are already freaking out over the Syracuse loss to Boston College. Man, you can almost smell the Madness already.

All night, it felt like a game this team was going to lose. They gave up the most points they have all season in the first half and were being cut down to size by a 5-foot-10-in-thick-sneakers point guard. Tahj Shamsid-Deen wasn’t supposed to be the guy who would end this winning streak, but he was trying his best.

And when Florida would make a run, Auburn would have an answer. So back and forth they went until Patric Young was inexplicably fouled intentionally by center Asauhn Dixon-Tatum.

“I don’t think they wanted to,” Young said, “because their coach was yelling at them afterwards.”

Young stepped to the line with sweat coming out of every pore. At one point Wednesday, he was doubtful because of his miserable knees. At halftime, he was one of several Gators who looked like they didn’t show up.

Young had zero points and one rebound in the first 20 minutes. Auburn had won the battle in the paint.

“I had to pick it up in the second half,” Young said.

His second half — 17 points and six rebounds.

But I’m getting ahead of the story. Young stood there with two free throws, 19 seconds to play and the score tied.

He had been there before, but only in his mind.

“I’ve been making up scenarios (in practice),” he said. “Like opportunity to go to the Final Four with free throws as a winner. I just told myself to be great, strive to be great.

“And I swished them like it was nothing.”

The crowd lost it when the second one went in, but nobody thought it was over, not the way Auburn was making 3-point shots.

The Tigers never got the chance.

As the five-second count was getting loud in his head, Auburn’s Allen Payne fired a pass in the general direction of KT Harrell in front of the Florida bench. Instead of finding Harrell, it found the bench. And three made free throws later, Florida had escaped.

After all of his preaching, Donovan had to be surprised that his team didn’t show up ready to play. The Gator players seemed surprised that Auburn showed up at all.

And if there is one lesson to be learned by this team it is this — if they didn’t know that they were getting every team’s best shot before their historic run last week, they know it now.

“I don’t think there is any question about that,” Donovan said. “I like to look at it the other way — are we going to give our best shot?

“These guys are in uncharted territory. I’ve got to do a better job to get them to play to their potential.”

Because that’s the thing. No matter how gaudy their record or win streak or RPI or BPI, this team has to play at a certain level to win games. They played at that level Wednesday night, but not until it was almost too late.

“Hopefully, we can learn how fragile this stuff is,” Donovan said.

So fragile, it was nearly broken.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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