AUBURN, AL – Stand your ground took on new meaning Saturday afternoon. When K.T. Harrell drove the baseline looking for a layup and a foul with 23 seconds remaining, Young never left his feet and roofed the 6-4 Harrell, plucking the ball out of his hands, a play that took the air out of Auburn Arena where a crowd of 8,683 was poised for Auburn’s first win over a ranked team since the 2003 season.
“I was there in a position where I could get there early enough and in control where it wasn’t a reaction out of weakness; it was a reaction out of strength,” Young said after turning in the critical defensive play in 7th-ranked Florida’s 68-61 win over Auburn. “He just put the ball right in my hands. It was like a block in volleyball. I just caught the ball. It was like he just handed it to me.”
The critical element in the play was Young staying on his feet and standing his ground. Had he left his feet, there was every good chance the whistle would have blown and Harrell would have gotten no worse than two free throws out of his effort.
“It was a concscious effort [to stay on my feet] because I foul too much and I didn’t want to foul and let them get an and-one and all that bad stuff,” Young said.
This was an afternoon when the Gators (15-2, 4-0 SEC) had their fair share of bad stuff, but it was also a game in which senior experience paid off in such a big way. In addition to his big defensive play at the end of the game, Young scored 13 points and grabbed six rebounds. Will Yeguete had four points, six rebounds, two assists, a blocked shot and five steals. Casey Prather, who had missed the previous two games after suffering a bone bruise against South Carolina, scored 21 points including 16 in the first half. Scottie Wilbekin scored 16 including a dagger of an off-balance shot as the shot clock wound down to zero with 1:22 to go that gave the Gators breathing room at 64-61 and threw cold water on Auburn’s upset bid.
“Our older guys made some plays,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said after the Gators extended their winning streak to nine games while keeping their SEC record perfect. “Pat made a defensive play at the end. Wilbekin made some free throws and a bucket there late. Prather coming back from injury played well and Yeguete … I trust those guys. They’ve been through it and they know.”
It was a game in which the seniors had to play well, particularly at the end, because Florida left its A-game back in Gainesville, particularly on the defensive end of the floor for large chunks of the game. Florida struggled in its man-to-man but was able to come up big in a zone in the final 1:59 after Tahj Shamsid-Deen flipped in a floating shot from the left wing to cut Florida’s lead to 62-61.
The zone turned out to be Florida’s savior.
“We didn’t do it with our man defense,” Donovan said. “We played zone the last three or four minutes and that helped because it helped keep them out of the lane. We were able to tag Harrell and (Chris) Denson a little bit better. We played some 1-3-1 midway through the second half and we got some turnovers and steals which helped but I don’t think our man defense did us any favors today. We really got hurt against them playing man to man and our zone helped us there.”
Although Auburn didn’t score in the final 1:59, the zone nearly betrayed the Gators. Following Wilbekin’s off-balance shot that gave the Gators a 64-61 lead, Auburn had a chance to tie when Harrell found a hole in the zone from straight on. He launched a 3-ball that did everything but go down. When it defied gravity and popped back out, Young was there to clear the rebound to Wilbekin, who was fouled with 47.9 seconds to go.
When Wilbekin only hit the second of the two foul shots, Auburn still had life until Young made the defensive play of the game on Harrell. After that point, it was just a matter of free throws as Wilbekin hit 1-2 and Kasey Hill hit two to provide the final margin.
If the Gators had been able to sustain the defensive effort of the game’s first 15 minutes, this never would have turned into a white knuckler. After giving up three straight 3-pointers in the first six minutes, the Gators held Auburn to a single point the next seven minutes. It was 27-14 after Casey Prather sneaked inside to score from point blank range with 4:54 to go.
Auburn was teetering on the verge of getting its doors blown off but a combination of Florida foul trouble – the Gators were whistled for 11 first half fouls which forced Dorian Finney-Smith to sit the final 13:09 of the half and Young to take a seat the last 3:05 – and turnovers led to a 14-0 Auburn run that saw the Tigers take the lead at 28-27 on a pair of Allen Payne free throws with 1:52 to go in the half.
“They scored 16 points in the first 17 minutes of the first half,” Donovan said. “That’s a pretty good effort defensively. Then they scored 16 points in the last 3:36 of the first half and it all started where it was underneath on an out of bounds play.”
That first turnover seemed to open a floodgate for mistakes. During Auburn’s run, the Gators turned it over two more times, missed three shots including two from the 3-point line, missed a free throw and committed three fouls that the Tigers converted into six easy points.
Wilbekin hit a pair of free throws with 1:40 left to halt Auburn’s momentum and Prather scored a layup on a nifty pass from Yeguete with 58.8 seconds to go for Florida’s first shot from the field in nearly four minutes. It was a pair of free throws by Wilbekin with 3.1 seconds to go that gave the Gators a 33-31 lead at the break, a lead that wouldn’t have been possible without Prather, who came back from his two-game absence to score 16 of his 21 points in the first half.
“I said yesterday and I meant it, I really didn’t know what to expect out of him,” Donovan said. “He looked just okay at best on Thursday and didn’t do any contact. For me to play him today he was going to have to do some contact or at least show me that he could play.”
Prather said that Donovan challenged him when he came was cleared for contact and to play.
“Coach asked me are you going to be a baby or are you going to play?” Prather said. “I said I was going to play.”
Prior to the game, Donovan warned his team not to put pressure on Prather to play at the level he was playing prior to the injury.
“That all went out the window in the first half when he had 16 so he was clearly going to play a lot more minutes,” Donovan said.
Prather ended up playing 29 minutes and added six rebounds, one assist and a steal to his totals. The 6-6 senior grinned when he thought about what the Gators had done, winning a road game in which they hadn’t played great but well enough to come away with a win.
“Any win is a good win,” he said. “Period.”
GAME NOTES: Florida shot 21-39 from the field and 3-9 from the 3-point line. The Gators were 23-33 from the foul line and outrebounded Auburn, 31-23 … Auburn’s dynamic scoring duo of Harrell and Denson, averaging a combined 38.4 coming into the game, put up 39 with Denson netting 21 and Harrell 18 … After hitting its first six 3-point shots including 5-5 in the first half, Auburn went 1-7 the rest of the way … Florida outscored Auburn 32-24 in the paint and 28-5 off the bench … Kasey Hill went 7-8 from the foul line, and added three assists and three steals.