A funny thing happened — actually two funny things happened — on the way to another one of those win it any way you can games that the Florida Gators have been playing nearly the entire season. With 14:26 remaining in the first half, Erik Murphy got his feet in position in plenty of time to draw a charge on Auburn’s DeWayne Reed and with 12:49 left in the game, Dan Werner blew by Lucas Hargrove on the dribble and dunked with his left hand.
Now that might not sound like much in the grand scheme of an entire ball game, which was a 78-70 win by the Gators (18-8, 7-4 SEC East) over Auburn (12-14, 3-8 SEC West), but those two plays offer evidence that Florida isn’t going to roll over and play dead in these final weeks of the regular season. A two-game losing streak was broken Thursday night at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center and even though the Gators endured another one of those shots gone south nights that have been plaguing them all season long, there was enough of a spark off the bench from Murphy and Werner to offer up hope that Florida can still make the NCAA Tournament.
Murphy’s defensive play — without question the best defensive play he’s made all season long — and Werner’s dunk were part of a collective 18 points, nine rebounds, two assists, one blocked shot and three steals from the three guys who make up Florida’s bench. Werner, in the best game he’s had since Vanderbilt, scored nine points, grabbed four rebounds, handed out a couple of assists and had a couple of steals. He also blocked a shot and locked down Auburn’s Lucas Hargrove, who came into the game averaging 14 points per game but managed only three shots and two points in 31 minutes on the floor against the Gators. In addition to taking the charge, Murphy scored seven first half points, grabbed three rebounds and picked up a steal. Ray Shipman scored two points and picked off a couple of rebounds while playing outstanding defense on the perimeter where the Gators held Auburn to 7-29 shooting from the three-point line.
Those numbers off the bench are significant when you consider their combined efforts in losses to South Carolina and Xavier last week totaled 12 points, six rebounds, six assists and four steals.
Werner and Shipman have had to get by with their defense in recent games because the confidence in their own offensive games has been worse than the Gators three-point shooting (2-10 against Auburn and 14-59 in the last four games combined). Werner scored only nine points total in the last six games and hung a bagel in three of the last four. Shipman has scored only 62 points all season.
While Shipman’s contributions were mainly on the defensive end Thursday night, Werner put together the best game he’s had in a month and a half. Werner gave the Gators juice when they needed it the most. He was high energy from the moment he entered the game the first time and while his overall numbers weren’t sensational, they didn’t have to be. He found ways to impact the outcome of the game such as the perfect pass to Chandler Parsons (17 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists) for dunk-free throw three-point play with 15:39 left in the game that gave the Gators a 48-43 lead, the blow-by left-handed dunk with 12:49 left that brought the O-Dome crowd of 10,103 to its feet or the offensive rebound with 1:41 left that saved a possession or the rebound he batted off an Auburn player that went out of bounds with 31.6 seconds left that gave the Gators another possession.
“I think the unfortunate part for Dan is that people do not understand his value of what he brings to the team,” Donovan said. “It’s unfortunate and I hear some of the things. He’s a great kid who loves his school and works his tail off every single day. He gives everything he has to our team. For me as a coach with three [home] games remaining, it was great to see him play with a lot of energy and fire and have some success out there and I thought he really impacted the game tonight.”
And then there was Murphy. The seven points really aren’t a surprise because he’s got the ability to score. It’s his lack of defense that tends to lead to early foul trouble that has kept him glued to the bench most of the season. It’s pretty much what is expected of freshmen, but considering Florida’s lack of live bodies, his inability to play extended minutes has at times been costly.
Murphy had his reality check meeting with Donovan earlier in the week when Donovan laid it out about his defense or lack of it.
“Coming out of the Xavier game I was a little bit upset with him because Erik is not a shot blocker and he has to figure out a way when people are driving the ball on him that he has to step up and put his body in place,” Donovan said. “I thought tonight that the thing that got him off to a great start was the very first possession of the game [for Murphy] he took a charge.”
In Murphy’s development as a defender, taking one charge is a great leap forward because it’s something that had never happened, at least since Murphy has been at Florida.
“He told me that’s the first one of his career,” Donovan said. “I’m serious — the first one he ever took in his life. I’ve been trying to get him to take a charge since October and the guy will not take a charge. So I said, ‘how do I play you when you can’t block a shot and you won’t take a charge?’”
Murphy took the charge Thursday night and it energized him. He went on to make all three of his shots from the field and hung tough against Brendan Knox and Ty Armstrong, who were both taller and stronger.
The contributions off the bench helped offset another one of those nights when there was virtually no perimeter game from Florida’s guards. Erving Walker was 0-6 from the field and 0-2 on three-pointers while Kenny Boynton was 2-7 overall and 1-4 on threes. Although both have shot the ball inconsistently all season long, a good reason for their off nights Thursday might have been the physical nature of the Auburn guards. The Tigers committed 29 fouls in the game and their three starting guards — DeWayne Reed (5), Frankie Sullivan (5) and Tay Waller (4) — combined for 14. Walker went 14-16 from the foul line and Boynton went 5-7, part of an overall 32-40 night for the Gators that kept their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
The Gators have five SEC games remaining starting with Saturday morning’s (11 a.m. EST start) game at Ole Miss. At 18-8, they probably need three more regular season wins and a first round win in the SEC Tournament to make the NCAA but there would have been practically no hope if they had lost to Auburn. The Auburn win was ugly, but that’s not unusual for this Florida team.
“They have found some ways to overcome some really, really bad shooting nights,” Donovan said. “You look at Walker and Boynton going 2-13 and we’re 2-10 from the three-point line and you know what? Who knows what happens on Saturday? But these guys haven’t been blown out by anybody with eight guys and not shooting the ball well. I think that says something about their competitive nature and the fact that they’re trying to do the things that go into winning.”
It is that competitive nature that allowed the Gators to invent a new way to win ugly against Auburn. This one was the result of free throws, good defense and some unexpected contributions off the bench.
It’s a different formula every night for the Gators whose deficiencies have been exposed for the whole world to see for quite some time. But even with all the deficiencies, they have won 18 games and their NCAA hopes continue to breathe.
“These guys work hard and they’ve got a good attitude,” Donovan said. “They’re not perfect. We have some flaws and we have some depth issues. All those things are there but they’re good kids who are trying to get better. We’re not the most talented team in the league and we’re not the worst talented team in the league. We’re probably somewhere in the middle and they’re trying to do the best that they can.”
Trying hard and doing the best they can might not get the Gators in the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year, but it will keep them in the hunt and right now all they can ask for is a fighting chance.
GAME NOTES: The Gators finished with four in double figures. Parsons led with 17, while Walker had 14, Alex Tyus 12 and Boynton 10 … Reed led Auburn with 22 points … Parsons has scored 85 points and grabbed 50 rebounds in Florida last six games … The Gators had one of their best games in awhile in terms of assist to turnover ratio. The Gators finished with 15 assists and only eight turnovers. Walker, who has averaged four turnovers per game in the previous five games, had six assists and only one turnover against Auburn … Florida shot (40) and made more (32) free throws than any game this season … The Gators outscored Auburn 32-26 in the paint and 15-9 off turnovers.