Gators’ second-half rally comes up short in loss to Auburn

Unlike their game against Alabama on Wednesday night, the Gators can’t blame their loss at No. 9 Auburn on Saturday night on a lack of effort.

They trailed by as many as 13 points in the first half and went into their locker room trailing by nine, but they didn’t throw in the towel. Instead, they scratched and clawed their way back to a one-point game with 8:37 to go. Even when they trailed by 12 with about a minute to go, they made a couple of shots and stole a couple of passes to at least make things interesting.

Ultimately, though, the Tigers were simply the deeper and more talented team, as they have up to five players who could be selected in the next NBA Draft, including the possible No. 1 pick. They had nine players play at least 14 minutes, and none of them played more than 28 minutes.

That proved to be too much for Florida to overcome, as Auburn defeated them, 85-73. With the loss, the Gators fall to 0-2 in SEC play for the first time since the 2009-10 season.

“I thought Auburn was terrific,” UF coach Mike White said. “I thought we were pretty good. I think Auburn would have beaten 99 percent of teams in college basketball tonight with the way that they shot the ball. They hit some late-clock daggers, they hit some contested floaters, some other contested jumpers mid-clock, executed well. They were really good tonight, especially offensively.

“They’re one of the best defensive teams in the country. I thought we missed some clean looks and still came in here and got 73. Only had 12 turnovers, really cleaned some stuff up after some turnovers early. I thought we defended the glass pretty well, even though they made a lot of them.”

Auburn (14-1, 3-0 SEC) shot 53.6 percent overall, including 44.4 percent from long range. Several of their eight made threes came with the shot clock running down and a hand in their face. They made almost all of the shots that they were supposed to make and a few that they weren’t supposed to make.

The opposite was true for UF (9-5, 0-2). They seemed to get higher quality looks than Auburn for most of the game, but they shot just 41.4 percent, including 27.3 percent from deep. They got to the free-throw line 28 times but only made 19 of them (67.9 percent).

“We’ve got to shoot it better,” White said. “We’ve got to find ways to instill some confidence in some of these guys. I thought when we were playing inside-out with Colin [Castleton], I thought he made some really good decisions and obviously made some hard ones himself in some one-on-one coverage versus size and length.”

Auburn simply shot the ball better than Florida did, and that was the difference in the game.

“I thought we got better here these last three days,” White said. “It’s a tough SEC schedule, obviously. These guys are terrific, and they were better. That said, I thought we played really hard. Unfortunately, good offense always beats good defense.”

K.D. Johnson led all scorers with 23 points on 7-for-13 shooting, including 3-for-4 from deep. Jaylin Williams added 14 points, three rebounds and two blocks, and Wendell Green posted 13 points, four assists and three rebounds. The Gators did a pretty good job against five-star freshman Jabari Smith, as he scored a modest 13 points and grabbed five rebounds.

Somewhat surprisingly, Florida’s frontcourt outplayed Auburn’s much more ballyhooed group. Castleton scored 22 points and secured 10 rebounds for his sixth double-double of the season.

After a slow start, he erupted for 17 points and nine rebounds in the second half to almost singlehandedly drag his team back into the game.

“He was terrific,” White said. “He played within himself. He missed a couple, and his confidence level didn’t waver. He demanded it. He drew fouls. He drew extra defenders, kind of got them in rotations a few times and probably should have had a couple more assists. Again, one of the best frontcourts in the country, and Colin obviously more than held his own.”

At the other forward spot, Anthony Duruji scored 14 points on 6-for-12 shooting and brought down five rebounds.

Point guard Tyree Appleby also enjoyed a solid game, with 12 points, nine assists (his most as a Gator), four rebounds and four steals, but he also turned it over four times.

Myreon Jones was the only other Gator to score in double figures. He went 3-for-7 from beyond the arc and finished with 13 points and three steals.

That quartet – Castleton, Duruji, Appleby and Jones – played well enough for the Gators to win. However, the other five guys who played combined for just 13 points on 4-for-15 shooting, eight rebounds, one assist and three turnovers. That’s not going to be good enough to win on most nights in the SEC.

“We scored 73 points, and they’re the best defensive team in our league and one of the top in the nation,” Duruji said. “I think we made simple plays in the second half. We didn’t really turn it over that much. I think we had like 12 turnovers. We got some open shots, but we just didn’t make them. We’ve got to continue to grow and get better and embrace the process.”

After Duruji’s three cut the deficit to 61-60 with 8:37 to go, Smith answered back just seconds later with a deep three-pointer of his own from the left wing.

Castleton cut the lead back down to two with a layup about 1 ½ minutes later.

Once again, Auburn answered back quickly, this time with a layup by Green.

Trailing 65-61, UF guard Brandon McKissic was fouled after securing a defensive rebound. With his team in the double bonus, he stepped to the line for a pair of free throws.

Both of them clanged off of the rim and were no good.

The Tigers used that empty trip to extend their lead out to seven on a layup by Green and a three by Johnson.

The Gators once again cut the lead down to five when Castleton made a shot following a steal by Jones.

“Our poise in an electric environment like this, I was proud of,” White said. “We were right there within striking distance after a rocky start. It was really loud in this arena, of course. Played less emotional second half, defended the glass pretty well. After those few loud turnovers early, I thought we really settled in.”

On Auburn’s next possession, Duruji fouled Smith while he was shooting a three. Smith made two of the free throws. Green then buried a three on their next possession, and the game was essentially over at that point.

It was one of those nights where the Gators just couldn’t seem to get everything going at the same time. When the offense was humming and Castleton was going full beast mode in the paint, they struggled to get stops on defense. Then, when the defense finally strung together multiple stops in a row, the offense went cold.

That allowed Auburn to maintain their lead throughout the second half and eventually pull away for the win.

Ethan Hughes
Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and also wrote for for two years before joining Gator Country in 2021. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars. You can follow him on Twitter @ethanhughes97.