We’ve been down this road before. Too often. At some point, the Florida Gators have to know that if they keep on playing miserable first halves and falling behind that it’s going to come back to bite them.
“There is going to be a point where if we come in with the mindset we had in the first half, we’re going to be down 15 points and it’s really tough to come back from that,” Patric Young said after scoring all 17 of his points in the second half including 3-4 from the foul line in the final 19.4 seconds to help the 2nd-ranked Gators (24-2, 13-0 SEC) to a 71-66 come from behind win over Auburn (12-12, 4-9 SEC) that extended their winning streak to a school-record 18 and their O-Dome winning streak to 30.
Florida never trailed by 15, but the Gators were down eight at the half (38-30) — their fifth straight game in which they have trailed at the half — and by two (65-63) with 2:06 to go. That had Auburn smelling upset but a good sniff is all the Tigers got.
You could say that Florida found a way to win and the Gators certainly helped themselves with some clutch free throw shooting, particularly by Young, who drained 7-9 from the line including the two that gave the Gators the lead for good at 68-66 with 19.4 seconds left in the game.
You could also say that the Gators caught a break from an Auburn team that made critical mistakes in closing seconds.
“The one thing you have to look at is we got some help down the stretch,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said after the Gators moved a game closer to their third SEC championship in the last four years. “The score is tied [66-66 with 20.7 seconds to go] and they (Chris Denson) missed a free throw and I was getting ready to call a time out when the ball crossed midcourt and (Asauhn) Dixon-Tatum fouls Patric Young which had nothing to do with us. Then Patric hits two free throws and they throw the ball out of bounds and then Scottie makes two free throws.”
The free throws by Young and Wilbekin gave the Gators a 70-66 margin with 17.5 seconds to go. Auburn got one more shot at the basket, but when KT Harrell missed a 3-ball, Young rebounded, got fouled and went to the line where he put the finishing touches on a night which began with such uncertainty by hitting 1-2 from the line with 4.1 seconds to go to provide the final 5-point margin.
Uncertainty came in the form of another flareup of tendonitis in Young’s knees. It wasn’t until just before the game began that Donovan knew the 6-9 senior center would give it a try.
“Pat wasn’t going to play today,” Donovan said. “He didn’t warm up. He told me before the game he could play. His knees were ailing. How much we could play him today was in doubt.”
The box score says Young gave the Gators 30 minutes but in reality, it was only 20 because he was pretty much a body occupying space in the first half when he snagged one rebound and hung a bagel in the points column.
In the second half, Young dominated in the paint. He scored on alley-oop passes from Scottie Wilbekin and inside moves. He was Florida’s clutch rebounder, grabbing the ball after three critical missed shots by the Tigers in the final minute of the game – after Shamsid-Deen’s missed runner with 56 seconds to go, after Denson’s missed foul shot with 20.7 seconds left and after KT Harrell’s missed 3-ball with 0:06 to go.
Young wasn’t the only Gator who needed a wakeup call to come through in the second half. Casey Prather was on the verge of being lifted from the game after he allows Shamsid-Deen to knock down a 3-pointer in the opening minute of the second half. Shamsid-Deen, who led all Auburn scorers with 17 points, went 4-6 from the 3-point line in the first half, most with Prather trying to guard him.
“I had enough of watching him constantly shoot threes over him (Prather),” Donovan said. “I told him I wanted to take him off and he said he wanted to guard him. I basically said if he gets one more off you’re coming off of him and as a matter of fact you’re coming out of the game.”
Prather did what every good senior would do. He begged for one more chance.
“Coach was about to take me off of him and I said, “No Coach, I’ve got him.’ I begged my way back on because I didn’t want to go out like that. That’s the first time and hopefully the last time [I’ll have to beg Coach Donovan].”
Shamsid-Deen went scoreless the rest of the way. He managed only one more 3-point attempt, which Prather got a piece of, and a runner in the lane that he missed with 56 seconds to go.
That missed shot with 56 seconds to go was the beginning of an awakening by Michael Frazier, who essentially went comatose on the offensive end after hitting his second 3-pointer of the game with 15:14 left in the first half. The Gators were trailing, 65-63, when Shamsid-Deen missed his runner. When the Gators got the ball across midcourt, Prather found Frazier looking straight on at the basket and the sophomore from Tampa drilled the 3-pointer that gave the Gators a 66-65 lead with 41.9 seconds to go.
It is important to note that on a night when the Gators were less than their best on the defensive end, they did play lock down defense in the final four minutes of the game. Auburn’s last made shot from the field was a 3-pointer by KT Harrell with 4:44 left that gave the Tigers a 62-60 lead. The Tigers got four more free throws but couldn’t hit a shot when they needed it because the Gators were swarming on the defensive end.
Young said that Florida’s late-game energy had everything to do with understanding what it takes to win big games.
“We’ve lost in these situations and won in these situations,” Young said. “This is a new team that has the experience to win these games.”
It is also a team that hates to lose.
Young says nothing is more appalling than the thought of losing.
“We really want it and we hate losing more than anything,” Young said. “Our hate for losing is probably more than our desire to win. When it comes down to this last situation we just fought and we got it done.”
The Gators did get it done, but they are well aware that if they continue to fall behind in the first half or they give less than a stellar defensive effort that everything they’ve worked for could come crashing down.
This is a team that keeps talking about that relentless pursuit of greatness. Greatness is attainable, but the Gators definitely aren’t there yet.
“I don’t think we’ve figured it out yet,” Frazier said. “Coach is always talking to us about being great and we weren’t great today. We did a good job of finding a way to win which is what good teams do but in terms of being great we’ve still got a lot of areas where we can get better.”
GAME NOTES: Florida’s win coupled with the first loss of the season by Syracuse could propel the Gators into the #1 position in the polls next week if they are able to knock off Ole Miss on the road Saturday … Young was Florida’s leading scorer while Prather chipped in with 16 points and Wilbekin had 15 to go with four assists … Will Yeguete chipped in with five points and eight rebounds … The Gators were shot only 40% from the field and just 33% from the 3-point line, but they outrebounded the Tigers, 36-22, and outscored them, 14-3, in second chance points, and hit 23-28 from the foul line. Auburn shot 47.8% from the field and hit 10-19 from the 3-point line but the Tigers only hit 12-17 from the foul line.