Hardly anybody saw this close of a game coming.
Entering play at 12-11, the Auburn Tigers were supposed to be a relatively easy win for the No. 2 Florida Gators. Chalk it up to a poor showing by Florida, or chalk it up to a great showing by Auburn, but the fact remains that this was entirely too close for comfort for Florida.
The 71-66 final was an even tighter affair than the five-point difference would suggest. The waning minutes were grueling for both teams, as repeated trips to the free-throw line by both sides kept the action slow.
Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports tweeted about how little disparity there is between teams at this point in the season:
Tonight's events reiterate that the level of separation bw the top teams in the country and everyone else is as close as its ever been.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) February 20, 2014
Auburn was up, 38-30, at the end of the first half, but Florida took charge in the second half to shorten the deficit and make an attempt at avoiding the upset. The consistent attack of Auburn proved to be a worthy adversary.
The closing minute of the game was exhilarating. Michael Frazier II hit a deep three with just 42 seconds left to give the Gators a 66-65 lead. He finished with just nine points, below his season mark of 12.2 per night. Then, with five seconds separating the shot clock and the game clock, Auburn decided to play it safe and maintain possession until the clock ticked away.
At that point, the Tigers had just one field goal in their last seven possessions. The stars were aligning for Florida to complete the comeback.
A blocking foul with 21 seconds to play sent Chris Denson to the line. The SEC's leading scorer at 20.9 points per game, Denson scored 15 points on 5-of-11 shooting. He was just 5-of-8 from the charity stripe.
Denson hit one free throw before missing the second. Patric Young of Florida snagged the board and was immediately fouled. The foul was not a smart one, and Young converted both attempts.
Young had a strong all-around game, scoring 17 points and grabbing seven boards. Even though he's just a 57.1-percent free-throw shooter, Young converted on 7-of-9 attempts against the Tigers. Needless to say, that was huge for the Gators.
Following Denson's missed second attempt, chaos ensued.
After a string of missed shots and timeouts, the Tigers had problems inbounding the ball for what would have been their final possession. Nobody got open to receive the offering from the baseline, resulting in an errant pass and a turnover.
Should the Gators be worried following the close result?
Auburn was then forced to foul in order to get another scoring opportunity. Scottie Wilbekin made both free throws to put his team up by four, 70-66.
Wilbekin, the SEC's Player of the Week, knew that Auburn wouldn't be an easy team to overcome. He recalled aspects of their previous meeting on Jan. 18, via CBS Sports.
"I can't remember how many points they had against us last time, but I knew they went off a little bit and they are capable of going off with big nights, both of them," Wilbekin said. "So we got to do a better job this game of knowing their straight-line drives and just play better on-ball defense."
In wins at Tennessee and No. 14 Kentucky, Wilbekin averaged 22 points, four assists, three rebounds and 2.5 steals per game to capture the SEC's weekly honors. While he didn't post those same marks against the Tigers, his 15 points and four assists were still higher than both of his per-game marks of 13.5 points and 3.7 assists.
After Wilbekin's two free throws, Auburn missed a shot and fouled yet again. Young hit one more free throw with five seconds to go to seal the deal.
Florida will look for a much easier go of things in the next game at Ole Miss on Feb. 22. At 16-10, Ole Miss has had varying levels of success this season.
Auburn will take on Vanderbilt at home on the same day. While the loss will be tough for them to stomach given how well they played in the first half, the Tigers will take solace is knowing they can run with some of the nation's best teams.
In the end, that might just be the most important takeaway from Wednesday night's action.
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