For 40 minutes in a raucous, enraptured O’Connell Center, Florida played the game it needed to play when it most needed a win.
For 40 minutes, against the No. 2 team in the polls — a team few would be surprised to see at the Final Four, or in the national championship game, or snipping nets — and the possible No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, Florida also played the sort of game it has infuriated fans with over Mike White’s tenure, with spotty to stupefying offense threatening to scuttle the accomplishments of dedicated, determined defense, and minor errors at enormous moments doing the same.
The Gators almost lost this game more than a few times over.
The Gators also won it, 63-62, with a final bit of brilliant defense helping take down the terrific Auburn Tigers, cue the first known court-storming in program history, and save a season that now might end in the NCAA Tournament after all.
UPSET ALERT— ESPN (@espn) February 19, 2022
Florida takes down No. 2 Auburn at home!! pic.twitter.com/g9hPXW1wh4
And in hilarious and characteristic fashion, Florida only had to survive that last play — Auburn inbounding the ball to Wendell Green, who dribbled to the top of the arc, faced a wall of Florida defenders, and panicked to the point that he elected to throw a pass to a well-covered Walker Kessler as time expired rather than even hoist a potential game-winning shot — because it coughed up critical points down the stretch.
Tyree Appleby’s last three of a 26-point day that was by far his best as a Gator put Florida up eight — at 61-53 — with 2:17 to play, after all. Florida should have been able to grind out this game fairly simply from that moment onward.
Instead, the Gators fouled K.D. Johnson on a putback, got just one of two free throws from Phlandrous Fleming, fouled Jabari Smith on a three-pointer, turned over the ball on a brain-dead Hail Mary inbounds pass from Brandon McKissic that never had a chance of getting to Colin Castleton, got just one of two free throws from Castleton, saw Fleming miss a three, and turned the ball over again on a baseline out of bounds that followed a wild sequence in which White taking a timeout may have averted either a turnover or a Florida dunk.
Days after blowing a four-point lead at Texas A&M — with a foul on a three being a primary reason — to make this win even more must-have, Florida stared down the same fate.
It would have been a deeply disappointing loss for the Gators — and probably tenure-defining for Mike White. Florida had played just about the best game it could summon for the first 39 minutes and 52.5 seconds, after all, and might have had nothing to show for it.
Appleby, so limited by a hamstring injury he couldn’t play more than five minutes at Kentucky last Saturday and had just three points in College Station on Tuesday, had taken over this game when need be, his Florida-best scoring output nearly matching Smith’s own 28-point explosion for Auburn and his five threes besting Smith’s by one. Despite the dramatic difference in degree of difficulty between the unconventional sprite and the statuesque Smith, whose slender 6’10” frame and impossibly silky shot should make him not just a top pick in this NBA Draft but a superstar in the professional ranks, Appleby essentially matched him on this afternoon.
Castleton, battered and bruised in this game as he has been all year, had provided much of the Gators’ scoring before Appleby’s scorching stretch, and again outdueled future NBAer Walker Kessler, this time with 19 points, eight rebounds, three blocks, and two steals to Kessler’s 11 and three.
Fleming and McKissic and Myreon Jones and Anthony Duruji all chipped in at least one three, and they and Niels Lane had all done something else good — McKissic playing fine defense on Smith, for example — and something else bad — Fleming banging two big threes and having five assists but also losing his mind with the ball late in the game, or Lane pairing his typically incredible defense with two atrocious threes late in the first half — by that point in the game, too.
And Florida was getting looks to go down — leaner threes from Appleby, finishes by Castleton over Kessler — that were not “good” shots in the sense of expected points, and maybe weren’t even advisable ones in the flow of its offense. The Gators got a little lucky on their shots, making 40 percent of their threes for just the fifth time this season.
But Auburn was lucky, too. Kessler hit his ninth three of the season — on his 41st attempt. Some of Smith’s shots were over the sort of defense any coach would dream of. Zep Jasper split defenders and threw up a reverse that found nylon. And if not for several sins of commission on offense in a first half that saw it lead 22-14 at the under-four timeout, Florida might well have shoveled Auburn into a double-digit hole before the break.
Instead, Auburn broke off an effortless 7-0 run into halftime, then followed it with a 14-5 run out of the locker room that flipped an eight-point deficit into a nine-point lead. That stretch put Florida in the familiar position of having to chase down a foe in the second half despite one of the most spirited first halves of competition these Gators have offered all year.
A lesser team might have broken there, convinced it had already given its best effort, thrown its finest punch, taken its best shots.
Florida, for all its faults, is not that lesser team — it is one that fights.
So fight the Gators did. And by making enough shots to match their defensive tenacity, they shrank and shrank that lead before seizing it again. And they would never give it up — not with their hands sweating, not with Auburn tearing at their fingers to break the grip.
What this means for this season is not totally clear, though a win this big could conceivably send the Gators up from the back of a pack of teams perched on the NCAA Tournament bubble to the middle of it. With three more wins from a slate that now features just four more games, but is split between major challenges against Arkansas and Kentucky and seemingly easier games against Georgia and Vanderbilt, Florida would have 20 on the season and 10 against SEC foes, numbers that would be both round and remarkable — and probably good enough to not sweat too hard on Selection Sunday so long as the Gators also win at least one SEC Tournament game.
What this win — and this season — mean for White’s tenure at Florida is also unclear. It’s the biggest win for a coach whose program has managed big wins on occasion, but not quite found stable footing in his seventh season. Ironically, it feels like some Gators might feel much better on this day were Florida in Auburn’s spot on this Saturday — loser to a Florida-like team, but pointed toward perennial prominence.
But this is Florida’s biggest regular-season win in Gainesville ever in relation to poll rankings, and it came in front of a hot crowd, over a rival, and via a triumph dramatic enough to elicit the sort of half-hearted impromptu court-storming that probably confirms why Florida fans shouldn’t attempt them in the first place. For me, it felt great to watch, even if it was a game involving this team — the Never, Ever Easy Gators, or the Heart and Hustle Gators, or the Lazarus Gators — because this was a huge, emotional win for Florida, all the other context and fallout and takeaways be damned.
I think there are Florida fans for whom that is not the case. I feel bad for them.
But this isn’t about them. I hope it never will be.
And I hope the Gator Boyz get to be hot tonight.