The Florida Gators had lost three straight. They had blown yet another double-digit lead in the second half. They let the best team in the SEC play some of its best ball in the crucial moments of a game with the SEC title on the line.
They also won, taking down Auburn in a 72-66 epic that sures up Florida’s NCAA Tournament stock and makes clear that this team still has the potential to beat great ones.
KeVaughn Allen led the way for the Gators, scoring 24 points after scoring zero at Tennessee and finishing the night by making eight of his final nine shots and two clinching free throws and wrapping a great performance around an even greater shot — a nearly nonchalant 65-footer to end the first half.
Those 24 points came off the bench, as Allen, Kevarrius Hayes, and Keith Stone all sat to begin the game as a result of being late to a team meeting on Friday. That opened up starting spots for Jalen Hudson — who excelled, scoring 19 points, smothering an Auburn three in the final two minutes, and converting a pivotal and-one in the final minute — and Dontay Bassett, who merely had the best game of his collegiate career.
Bassett had a career-high 12 points and six rebounds — five of them offensive — and gave Florida an energetic presence down low that it has often lacked when Hayes plays the lion’s share of the minutes at Florida’s big forward position.
And that outburst from the redshirt freshman helped the Gators do just enough to keep Auburn defenders honest and enable a downpour from Florida’s shooters. The Gators made 13 of 28 threes — with Allen and Hudson combining for 10 — and got a career-high 12 assists from Chris Chiozza, who was brilliant as a facilitator all night despite struggling (1-for-5) at the charity stripe and scoring only eight points.
Truth be told, Florida could probably have sewn this victory up earlier, or scored it by a larger margin, if it had simply converted at the line, where the Gators were a woeful 7-for-16. Florida forced 16 Auburn turnovers and limited the sweet-shooting, relentless Tigers to just eight threes and only 10 free throw attempts, keeping virtually every Tiger but Mustapha Heron (22 points) under his seasonal scoring average and holding Auburn to its fewest points on the season.
But these Gators are who they are, and couldn’t help but let the Tigers chip away until they had erased all of what was a 14-point lead in the second half, making a three after a 1-for-2 trip by Chiozza to go up 62-60.
The Gators were who they are when finishing the game on a 12-4 run, though, too — and it is that dichotomy, between brilliance and brutality, that makes these Gators capable of the fantastic and the frustrating in equal measure.
This night, at least, was the former.