With a Saturday night showdown barely underway, Auburn looked poised to blow the roof off Auburn Arena. The Tigers led Florida — which every soul in the building treated as a heavyweight — by 12-5 and 24-11 counts in the early goings, hitting tough threes and driving for difficult twos.
Florida found its composure and some game, though, and never quit fighting, gritting its teeth and going to work against an Auburn team more talented than any it has seen this season. The Gators gutted out the rest of the first half and much of the second half, whittling Auburn’s lead to a single point.
But they never tied. They never took the lead. And Auburn’s win? It ultimately came by an 85-73 count — a margin of 12 points, just one fewer than that largest lead.
Colin Castleton did the heaviest lifting for the Gators, going to war against a sizable and deep Auburn frontcourt and coming away with 22 points and 10 rebounds. Tyree Appleby had a magnificent game — maybe his best as a Gator — as Castleton’s sidekick and Florida’s initiator, scoring 11 points, handing out nine assists, and swiping four steals.
And Anthony Duruji and Myreon Jones combined for 27 points, doing more than half that damage from distance.
But Florida made just six of 22 threes overall, with Duruji and Jones needing 13 tries to get their five makes and Appleby throwing in just one of his five attempts; with Auburn making eight of 18 treys, including a pair of 30-footers from Wendell Green, that accuracy from the Gators’ snipers wasn’t enough.
And while Florida committed just 12 turnovers — and accrued 12 steals of its own while forcing 16 Auburn turnovers — that wasn’t enough to compensate for Auburn shooting 54 percent from the field, with K.D. Johnson scoring at every level en route to a game-high 23 points and three other Tigers scoring in double figures.
Auburn never trailed after erasing Florida’s game-opening 3-0 lead, and when the Gators scrapped to a 60-59 deficit with 8:36 to play, Jabari Smith simply answered with a three just 16 seconds later, beginning an extended 16-4 run that restored the lead to 13.
To put the deftness of Auburn’s depth in perspective: Walker Kessler and Smith, each an NBA prospect — with Smith a surefire early choice and maybe even the top selection come the 2022 NBA Draft — combined for a relatively tame 19 points and 13 rebounds, essentially matching Castleton’s production ... and Auburn barely missed a step, thanks to Johnson, Green, and Jaylin Williams picking up any slack.
The Tigers’ 35 bench points dwarfed Florida’s mere nine, and a frontcourt that racked up 11 fouls trying (and largely failing) to guard Castleton got a huge boost from reserve Dylan Cardwell, who didn’t score but had seven rebounds, two blocks, and a steal off Bruce Pearl’s bench.
That depth affords substantial advantage, and it’s to his and Auburn’s credit that Pearl has built the Tigers into a program that can consistently be near the top of the SEC. The Tigers who took the floor and mostly took it to Florida on this night can reasonably set another Final Four as their goal just three seasons after reaching their first ever in 2019.
And that’s simply not where Florida is as a program right now, with Mike White in a soft reboot after initial success with Billy Donovan’s players, uneven years with his first crop of ballyhooed recruits, and what increasingly looks like it will be an uphill climb to the 2022 NCAA Tournament awaiting this team of transfers.
Whether that is damning of Florida’s place in men’s college basketball — and whether Florida not bottoming out but instead fighting to March Madness in all but his first year is a defense of White and the Gators that carries any weight — is largely up to perspective, with partisans arguing each side until blue in the face.
Whether White can get Florida to where Auburn now is debatable; whether he’ll even get the chance might be, too, though Florida and Scott Stricklin has shown a fair bit more faith in him than his detractors do.
But whether Auburn is better than Florida at this moment in 2022 is clear: The Tigers are.
And now the Gators face a long and winding road — one that will intersect with Auburn again in Gainesville — on which they may need to best teams that might be their betters to have the kind of season they want.