Florida looked dog-tired. Patric Young was lumbering up and down the floor, Michael Frazier II was playing with some arm injury sustained on a goaltending call, Scottie Wilbekin's greyhound defense was looking more gray, Casey Prather missed a free throw off the front rim, and Will Yeguete was getting shook by Auburn players on the defensive baseline.
Auburn had been answering the question left hanging after the Tigers went cold at the end of the first meeting between the two teams this year, back in January — "What if Auburn just keeps making shots?" — by draining three after three, both of the uncontested and well-challenged varieties. And every borderline call seemed to go the Tigers' way all night, from a 50-50 continuation being granted to Chris Denson on one end just prior to Yeguete being denied one at the other to a late foul on Yeguete for doing little more than standing in Denson's way.
And in the final minute of play, Florida outscored Auburn, 8-1, with an epic Frazier three and three free throws from Young, as the Tigers melted down, fouling Young with the score tied and throwing an inbounds pass to Billy Donovan — Florida's coach, not his walk-on son.
In that minute, Florida earned its 71-66 win, and with it, these Gators now have the program's longest winning streak ever — 18 games.
This was arguably the toughest win of them — even tougher than taking down Kansas in December, or the toe-to-toe battle with Memphis in Madison Square Garden, or the overtime win at Arkansas, or the back-to-back road wins at Tennessee and Kentucky that immediately preceded it. Florida played poorly for much of the first half, making four of its 15 two-pointers and allowing Auburn to make six of its nine threes. Only six threes by the Gators kept them in radio distance, and their 38-30 deficit at halftime was their biggest in over a year.
Florida would rally to begin the second half, clicking off an 11-3 run to tie the game, but after holding the lead for just under two minutes in the first half, the Gators wouldn't take the lead until the 9:40 mark of the second half — and lost that advantage in just over two minutes, too.
But Florida never let the Tigers lead by more than three points in the final 10 minutes, with Young chipping in the sum of his 17 points and six of his seven rebounds in the second period, and Frazier's three — just the third and final one of his nine attempts to fall on the night — gave the Gators the lead for good, while giving a sellout crowd its first chance to explode all night.
Young tied Auburn point guard and Erving Walker clone Tahj Shamsid-Deen for top scoring honors in the game, and Wilbekin matched Chris Denson's 15. Casey Prather chipped in 16 points on just eight shots, outdoing K.T. Harrell (14 points), typically the second barrel of the Tigers' usually double-barrelled attack.
But this was, more than anything else, the Gators standing tall with all the pressure — the 17-game winning streak, the 30-game home winning streak, the No. 2 national ranking, the unblemished mark in SEC play, the possible NCAA Tournament seeding ramifications — on them, and Auburn crumpling in the final moments, when the pressure was on a team that had played hard, bold basketball all night. Florida earned this win, but Auburn's pipes were busting while Florida was sweating diamonds, and that helped a lot.
There's another pressure-packed game ahead: After Syracuse's loss to Boston College on Tuesday night, which was finalized literally minutes after Florida's win, the Gators will likely be playing for the No. 1 ranking nationally when they visit Mississippi — and Marshall Henderson — on Saturday.
Worrying about this Florida team, though, seems to be little but a precursor to feeling relief. It may not have been easy tonight, and it often seems to be arduous for a team longer on heart and hustle than five-star talent, but the Gators came through again, after coming through the past 17 times.
And the more this team comes through, the more convinced I am that no other team comes close.