Easy pickings. Victory lap after a hard week. Happy hour. These all could have been used to portray the game pitting the Florida Gators, undefeated in 29 consecutive tries at home and in conference play this season, against the Auburn Tigers. Yet the Gators were given a run for their money, and they almost lost their shirts. But, in the end, Florida’s experience turned away an aggressive young team from Auburn, culminating in a 71-66 decision.
Where do I start? This game was edgy, chippy, sloppy, and physical throughout. The Gators actually trailed for most of the contest, posting their largest halftime deficit of the season at 38-30. For most of the game they sleepwalked and looked punch drunk with errant passes, bad looks, wayward shots, and slow defensive transitions.
Patric Young (who was battling a slight case of tendonitis) and Scottie Wilbekin were the game changers in this one. Young scored 17 points and came close to a double-double with 7 rebounds, while Wilbekin posted 15 (including 9 from behind the arc). And in a refreshing change of stats, Young was a respectable 7-for-9 from the free-throw line.
The tale of the halves continued for the Gators, and this one came very close to not having a happy ending. Auburn was a stunning 10-for-19 on three-point shots, and had Young not scored all of his 17 points in the second half, I might be writing a different article. Auburn also tried their hand at forcing the Gators to earn points at the free throw line, which in this case proved to be the deciding factor – the team shot a combined 23-for-28 from the line. Wilbekin got hot at the right time, and after a scary moment in which Michael Frazier II went down with what initially looked to be an ugly hand injury, both players succeeded in rallying the Rowdy Reptiles and ultimately willing the team to victory.
There was good and bad news from the game. We’ll start with the bad news – well, let’s call it “cautionary” information. This stretch of the schedule in recent years past has not been kind to the Gators. In looking back, I found a pattern of what we’ll call the “February Florida Swoon.”
Excluding the current season, out of 37 games played after February 10th since 2006, the Gators are 16-21 in SEC conference games. This includes a 1-3 record by the 2006 NCAA championship team, and a 2-3 record by the 2007 NCAA championship team. And it isn’t just losses at Tennessee and Kentucky, folks: there are losses to Alabama (who’s been to two NCAA tournaments in the same time frame we’re talking about), losses to Georgia (who has also been to two NCAA tournaments in this time frame), and a particularly inexplicable loss in 2011 at South Carolina (who hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2004 – and who these Gators play in Columbia on March 4).
I don’t bring this up to take away from these other programs and what they’re doing; I don’t bring this up to borrow trouble; nor do I bring this up to be a Debbie Downer. No, I bring this up because Florida fans need to have perspective heading into the home stretch of SEC play.
Wednesday night’s scare versus Auburn proved something that has been true for as long as conferences have had team play. Any team (regardless of ranking or conference standing) is not entitled to a win. Teams truly earn each and every win, at home or on the road. Yes, the Gators are ranked No. 2 (and might very well be No. 1 on Monday if they win this weekend), but Auburn was unranked and came very close to winning in Gainesville. With road games against a talented Ole Miss aquad and at Vanderbilt (where you might be surprised to learn that the Gators have not won since 2010), and a home finale against Kentucky, this season is far from over – and we all need to remember that.
On the positive side of the win against Auburn, I was heartened by the last part of the second half. Once again, these players who have won 108 games as a team, came together to force a victory. After being 0-6 in games decided by 9 points or less last year, the Gators are now 10-2 this season in single digit games. They are quickly earning a reputation as a team you can count on in the clutch. I can’t say this enough: it isn’t buzzer-beater luck, or by getting magical shots to go in. Timely defensive havoc wreaked by Wilbekin, a clutch three by Frazier, and a strong 9-rebound closeout by Casey Prather all contributed – as well as having the experience to know what to do in times of crisis.
If you need almost all of your three-point shots to go down, as Auburn did, to keep the game close, I say bring it. Coach Billy Donovan has plenty of tape to review from last night’s game, but if guarding the perimeter against a dangerous behind-the-arc team is the answer, I’ll take that. That’s a relatively easy remedy, unlike other more serious issues such as team chemistry, bad coaching, or poor ball handling.
In the end, Auburn made almost every single shot they needed, and yet the Gators still walked off their home court as victors. Auburn played like a team with absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain, but the Gators played like the stronger team on a mission – a mission to avenge three straight exits in the Elite Eight. Auburn played with grit and brawn, but the Gators played with heart and mind.
I like this team; I believe in this team. No. 1 or not, they are true men of character off the court, and warriors on it. They’ve proven time and time again that they are hungry for success. Yet, an undefeated SEC record as of right now does not mean anything – not one damned thing. Possession-by-possession, point-by-point, free throw-by-free throw, game-by-game: rinse and repeat. Let’s hope the Gators follow that playbook starting against Ole Miss on Saturday, instead of whatever flat and discombobulated one they pulled from for 2/3 of the game against Auburn. That’s how to win.