For Florida, Wednesday night’s trip to Auburn was a chance to get a season-shifting win — the kind that could kick-start SEC play.
And for 40 minutes, the Gators fought for that victory.
But what they came away with was just another hard-fought loss.
At the end of a see-sawing contest, Auburn forced a Colin Castleton turnover in the final seconds and got a run-out lay-up off of it to secure a 61-58 win over Florida in both teams’ SEC opener.
That fateful final play capped a game in which neither team led by more than seven points — and the game was within five or fewer points for almost its duration.
Florida’s persistence and resilience in the first half did plenty to set the stage for that sort of nail-biter. Auburn sprinted out of the blocks on a 7-0 run in the game’s first three minutes, but the Gators responded with an extended 14-6 stretch to take their first lead, matching the intensity of the Tigers — and muting a rowdy crowd — for the rest of the period.
The Gators would have made an 8-0 run to close the half, too, if not for a deep three by K.D. Johnson that halved the halftime lead to 26-23. (Johnson hitting that three meant Florida led by more than five points for a mere 27 seconds; Auburn enjoyed a lead that large for ... 26 seconds.)
But Auburn’s 11-6 burst to begin the second half — with nine of those points coming from Wendell Green — proved this would be a game that would swing back and forth instead of becoming one team’s to control, and the double-digit ties and lead changes reflected its intensity and drama.
For Florida, getting still more production from Kowacie Reeves — whose 15 points came with a couple of soaring dunks and a slew of hustle plays but just one made three — and anything from Myreon Jones (10 points, two steals, one assist, no turnovers) has to be promising, especially on a night when Castleton was more facilitator and all-around performer than scorer, putting up just six points but stuffing the stat sheet with eight rebounds, a team-high four assists, four blocks, and two steals.
And while their point total was in the 50s again, this was not the Florida team that was noncompetitive against West Virginia, outclassed by UConn, or outworked by Oklahoma. Six Gators had six or more points against a rugged Auburn defense, and the Gators made up for their woeful shooting (3-for-19 from three) by coaxing the same sort of spraying (3-for-14) from the Tigers, doing an excellent job at the line (17-for-19), and fighting to the final possession.
But little mistakes — Castleton’s turnover, seemingly caused by him pushing off a defender and losing the ball; Trey Bonham missing a one-and-one free throw with the game tied and 3:32 to play, leading to a quick Auburn dunk for Johni Broome; Jones pulling a three that missed badly with just over a minute to play — can clearly still be lethal to this team’s chances in close games.
And this team projects to play a lot of close games against the SEC, which has a few teams clearly better than Florida but many more the Gators will have a fighting chance of beating on any given night.
This one did not produce a Florida victory. But these Gators now have proof that they can dodge and weave and punch against a team on or above their level, something that they had not shown through non-conference play.
Florida could do worse than going down fighting as it did in this game. And it has.
The next step, though, is putting opponents on the canvas — or out for the count.