Just when it seems like this Florida Gators basketball team doesn’t have anything left up its sleeve, it does exactly what it did Saturday night.
The Gators desperately needed a strong close to the regular season to keep their post-season hopes alive after losing three straight and five of the last seven.
Despite the recent struggles, a sellout crowd of 10,503 gathered in the O’Dome to create by far the rowdiest environment of the season and push Florida to a huge 72-66 win over No. 12 Auburn.
“It was on fire,” said head coach Mike White. It was a great college basketball environment. Arguably, the best in here this year. And that’s a factor … Just knowing that our fans and that student section, the Rowdies, they were just rocking. It was electric.”
The Gators quickly jumped out to a 10-2 lead with help from a couple dunks to go with a couple three-pointers in the first minutes of the game.
With Florida rolling early, Auburn was forced to call a timeout and regroup.
The Gators were able to hold the Tigers at a comfortable distance until a scoring drought of nearly six minutes allowed them to tie it at 15 with 8:03 left in the half.
Auburn kept clawing back, but never took a lead in the first half.
The game was still tied with two minutes remaining in the half, but that’s when KeVaughn Allen took over.
After missing his first five shots of the game, he went on to hit back-to-back-to-back threes for the Gators to close it out.
The most dramatic of those came in the final seconds. Florida had possession to take the last shot of the half, but a silly frustration foul on Egor Koulechov gave the Tigers the ball back.
Auburn missed a three-point attempt, leaving three seconds on the clock for the Gators to work with.
That’s all Allen needed.
Chris Chiozza inbounded the ball to him, and he didn’t even make it to half court before launching a prayer that found its way in the hole at the buzzer. The miracle shot gave Florida a 33-24 halftime lead.
“It was a big momentum shot for us,” White said. “Guys were fired up going into the locker room. He made something out of nothing. We needed it.”
Things only got crazier over the last 20 minutes.
The Gators got out to their typical double-digit advantage early in the half, leading the Tigers 43-29 at the 17:23 mark. Within four minutes, that 14-point lead was cut to just four.
The only thing that kept Florida in front the next couple minutes were Allen jumpers to answer Auburn’s advances.
Dontay Bassett drew a foul on a made layup a couple possessions later and completed the three-point play to push the Gators up by seven.
Florida managed to hold Auburn down by at least four points for a while, but there was no question a challenge was coming, and how the Gators answered could make or break the outcome of the season.
As expected, the Tigers brought it within two with 4:39 left in the game. The next possession, they drained a three-pointer to take their very first lead.
This would normally be the time Florida would go cold on offense and break down on defense, but Jalen Hudson answered right back with a three of his own to make it 59-57.
With 2:44 to go, Auburn completed a three-point play and reclaimed a 62-60 lead.
Hudson missed a three the next time down the court, but Egor Koulechov fought for an offensive rebound and Allen again came through from beyond the arc, putting the Gators ahead by one.
Allen answered with a three one more time after a couple made free throws that briefly gave Auburn the lead. That made it 66-64 Florida with 1:45 remaining.
The defense came up with a couple big stops on the Tigers’ following possessions, including a block by Hudson.
Chiozza was fouled while grabbing the rebound, but uncharacteristically missed both of his free throw attempts.
Kevarrius Hayes made a great effort to keep the ball from going out of bounds, but the officials ruled that he stepped out while making the play. The replay told a very different story, but nonetheless the call was not reversed and Auburn had the ball with 51 seconds.
The Tigers got a chance at the foul line again, and tied it again, during that gifted possession.
Chiozza put the fate of his senior season in Hudson’s hands as he dished it to him for a layup. Hudson drew a foul on the play and made his free throw to put the cherry on top.
Auburn was forced to put up threes and foul the rest of the way, and the Gators were able to make a final stand to close out the win.
“Yeah, that felt real good,” Hudson said. “We just didn’t stop fighting … I thought it took everybody. We changed the lineup a little bit. We played hard from the tip. I feel like we put 40 minutes together.”
The change in lineup may have been just what Florida needed. Allen, Hayes and Keith Stone were late for a team meeting the night before, opening an opportunity for Bassett and Mike Okauru to get their first career starts.
Bassett has been showing steady improvement lately, and he played a huge factor in the win for the Gators on Saturday. He earned 24 minutes, put up a career high 12 points (5-for-6 from the field) and tied for a team-best six rebounds.
“That was huge,” Hudson said of Bassett’s night. “He shows up every day in practice. It was no surprise for us. When Coach said he was in the starting lineup, nobody was surprised or anything. He competes every day. He’s our most physical guy. I’m really happy for him.”
Hudson got 19 of his own, shooting 50 percent from the field (7-for-14) and 66 percent from three (4-for-6). Chiozza finished with 12 assists in the game while contributing eight points and five boards.
The obvious player of the game was Allen. He did not score a single point at Tennessee earlier in the week, but that didn’t stop him from getting 24 in arguably the biggest win of the season. He went 8-for-15 from the field and made six of Florida’s 13 three-pointers of the night.
“If any of our students are watching this, if you see KeVaughn on campus Monday, tell him to shoot the basketball,” White said. “I was really proud that he remained aggressive … When he’s aggressive, other guys gain confidence whether they’re going in or not. He’s an electric scorer. He’s one of the few guys who can start 0-for-5 and hit his next six.”
With an impressive win over the first-place team in the SEC, the Gators have put themselves in good position to make the NCAA Tournament.
While that is huge, this team has not handled success well this season. Florida must remain focused with a couple more resume building games coming up next week.
“I’m not really sure if that gets us in or not,” Hudson said. “We’ve got a quick turnaround. We’ve got Alabama on Tuesday at Alabama. We’re just trying to get there and focus on that. I don’t even really want to celebrate this too much longer. It’s not the national championship or anything like that. It’s one game.”