From the opening tip the Florida Gators were on fire and they didn’t relent at any point for a wire to wire blowout of the Auburn Tigers by a score of 81-65. In the opening minutes the Gators jumped to a 9-0 lead, which quickly turned into a 26-9 advantage. At half, the scoreboard read 42-26, and in case there was any chance the Tigers were going to claw their way back into this one the Gators pushed their lead to 51-30 and put things into cruise control to close things out. Both sides of the floor saw the Gators play some of their most inspired basketball of the season which could have been a result of a few things. The Gators had a week to prepare for this game due to their unofficial “bye” on the schedule, and they certainly felt the need to get this resume win coming off a frustrating loss to Texas A&M. Whatever it was, the Gators had a mighty performance to improve 16-7 on the season and 6-4 in the SEC, and arguably even more importantly–get their second quadrant-1 win. Gainesville continues to be a house of horrors for Auburn who has now lost their last 15 road games against the Gators.
Getting His Swagger Back
It’s been somewhat of an up and down season for Riley Kugel but he has shown the ability to have some explosive scoring outputs and that was the case against Auburn as he led the way for the Gators with 22 points and 4 rebounds off the bench. Auburn is full of athletes on the wing and those have been the matchups that Kugel has historically matched with well and that was the case once again and he flew around the court in transition and drilled jumpers off the dribble. When Kugel is playing like this he’s one of the best sixth men in the country and the energy and shot making ability he brings off the bench is a massive luxury for the Gators. Given that the starters were already playing great ball, for Kugel to come in off the bench as hot as he was almost guaranteed the victory as it would against most teams in the country. Florida will hope that the confidence Kugel has been gaining will result in these types of games happening with more consistency and if they do–watch out.
Historically Auburn has been a team that’s filled with skilled guards but that isn’t how their roster is built this season and entering Saturday’s game the Gators were expected to have an edge at that position, at least on paper. Well, it wasn’t just a theoretical advantage as Florida’s backcourt trio of Walter Clayton, Zyon Pullin, and Riley Kugel combined for 61 points nearly matching the output of the entire Tigers roster. We already talked about how Kugel came off the bench to completely overwhelm Auburn but before that happened the starting duo of Clayton and Pullin already set the tone. Clayton fueled the early Gators run with some confident threes off the dribble and Pullin later pushed the lead even further with some physical downhill drives that ended in smooth turnaround jumpers. Both Clayton and Pullin were playing with a level of ease and freeness that was remarkable, as if both were hardly breaking a sweat while getting to exactly where they wanted on the floor at any time they wanted. Florida hardly had to run any of their offensive sets as the guards were breaking down Auburn’s defense with the dribble and whenever they had an initial advantage they seemingly always were making the right plays. Even though they were playing loose it was still focused–and the confidence they were oozing was contagious. When Florida’s guards play like this they’re one of the best units in the country–and this is often the position group that wins games in March.
The Dirty Work
It was Florida’s guards that were getting a lot of the shine while piling up points but that shouldn’t take away from what was a tremendous defensive game from Florida’s frontcourt. Auburn has one of the best interior groups in the country with Johni Broome and Jaylin Williams but Florida was able to keep them at bay for much of the game with much of their production coming only in garbage time. Throughout the season Florida’s opponents have tried to attack their relatively thin frontcourt, and their physical toughness has at times been questioned. You could see that it was a focus for them to step up to the physical challenge against Auburn as they were notably more engaged, firstly on the glass and secondly when it came to battling for post position on the block. This is what the Gators had been missing from their frontcourt and the step up in physicality was notable, and if they can keep up that level of play for the rest of the season it’s going to be a lot harder for opponents to score.
This was arguably Florida’s best game of the season and one that gets them a huge resume win over an Auburn team that was 8th in the NET. Things might have been in Florida’s favor with a huge rest advantage over the Tigers and the game taking place in Gainesville but those alone can’t be solely responsible for what was a dominant performance by the Gators. It’s encouraging that the Gators were able to play much better defense which has been an issue this season while continuing to play to their strengths–a very productive backcourt. Going into this game the Gators were squarely on the bubble but this win will get them on the right side of it–at least for now. They’ll hope to bottle up some of the intensity from this game and use some of it on Tuesday against LSU.