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Weekend Bites: Florida adds SEC titles on mat and pool to upset of Auburn

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Florida’s weekend included championships as well as reversals of fortune.

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Florida Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

Florida upends Auburn for seismic win: The Florida Gators sporting event that you couldn’t have helped but notice this weekend involved Florida’s men’s basketball team — but it was those Gators getting a big win instead of taking a painful loss that was the order of the day on Saturday.

Florida fought tooth and nail for its 63-62 upset of No. 2 Auburn, rallying from a nine-point deficit early in the second half — after a spectacular run from the Tigers fueled by freshman phenom Jabari Smith — and holding on despite a series of mistakes down the stretch. Ultimately, the Gators would get this win not with a shot — despite Tyree Appleby making plenty of them en route to his Florida-best 26 points — but a stop, their defense snuffing out the final Auburn possession.

Dozens of fans rushed the court in the wake of the final horn, and the Gators celebrated a win Mike White termed “special” on Saturday. This triumph alone probably won’t get Florida into the 2022 NCAA Tournament, however, making following it up with another against Arkansas on Tuesday the new most important task for these Gators.

Florida gymnastics, men’s swimming claim SEC crowns: Elsewhere in Gator Nation, two fiefdoms added new banners to program history — extending impressive streaks in so doing.

For Florida’s gymnastics team, that came through shaking off a strangely low-scoring bars rotation to top Kentucky on the road, clinching at least a share of the SEC regular-season championship for the fourth straight year — and as those Gators have much bigger dreams that have gone unfulfilled despite a recent habit of winning the SEC, it only means so much.

The Gators men of the pool, by contrast, flashed and capped their recent dominance in snagging their 10th consecutive conference title at the weekend’s SEC Championships, outpacing second-place Tennessee and Alabama by nearly 500 points — an enormous margin in collegiate swimming — and winning nine gold medals in the process.

And they did all of that without Bobby Finke, perhaps the second star of the 2020 Olympic Games behind fellow Gators swimmer Caeleb Dressel, as the dreaded “health and safety protocols” kept him home in Gainesville. It sure didn’t matter to Florida that maybe the world’s best men’s distance swimmer at the moment wasn’t part of its start sheet for the 1,650-yard freestyle: Trey Freeman and Tyler Watson took first and third, respectively, and Gators also occupied every spot from fifth to ninth in the final results, gleaning a whopping 173 points from that event alone.

Florida’s women also scored well in their 1,650 free, tallying 94 points, but finished fifth overall and at the back of a lead pack of five teams.

Florida baseball flames out against Liberty: A scintillating start on the mound from Hunter Barco and at the plate from Sterlin Thompson got Florida a season-opening win over Liberty on Friday. The Gators’ inability to build on that on Saturday or Sunday left them with just their second season-opening series loss under Kevin O’Sullivan.

Barco allowed one hit in six innings after recording the game’s first 16 outs in order and Thompson had two homers and five RBI, four coming on a fifth-inning grand slam, in Florida’s 7-2 win on Friday, but the Gators stranded 15 base-runners and issued 12 free passes to Flames combined on Saturday and Sunday, helping Liberty take 6-4 and 5-3 wins in games that saw starters Timmy Manning and Pierce Coppola match a Barco feat from Friday by starting the games with three straight strikeouts.

Five Gators who had seven or more at-bats on the weekend hit under .200 over them, a spate of poor hitting that seems unlikely to be a consistent theme for Florida given its talent on hand. But the very early returns on what is one of Kevin O’Sullivan’s youngest teams ever look a lot like what Florida produced a year ago, when struggling hitters and a scuffling bullpen helped undermine an excellent rotation and a team tabbed for national championship contention fizzled out in the NCAA Tournament.

Florida softball continues steamrolling run: The other ball-and-bat Gators, on the other hand, are looking like a team that might have been slightly underrated despite a lofty preseason ranking. Florida finished slicing through the Tampa-based T-Mobile Tournament on Sunday with its sixth shutout of the year, and the Gators ran their record to 10-0 after two weekends of tournament play thus far.

Without a singular ace or dominant power hitter on paper, Florida’s roster is built to have many contributions from many sources lead it to success. So far, so good on that front: Nine Gators are hitting .300 or better over 10 or more at-bats, and five pitchers have divvied up the workload of 64 innings, yielding just six earned runs and the resulting 0.55 ERA on the season.

And without another ranked team on the schedule before SEC play, Florida could conceivably bring a spotless mark into mid-March. Its difficulty in the next few weeks will come primarily from touring Florida, with trips to Jacksonville to meet North Florida and Orlando for a tournament in which it will play UCF at UCF on the docket.

Women’s hoops drops thriller at LSU: The other — and, this season, better — Gators of the hardwood, despite fighting from behind for much of their visit to Baton Rouge on Sunday, had a chance to continue their surprising winning ways late. But Zippy Broughton’s potential game-tying three with nine seconds to go would not fall, and LSU instead hung on for a 66-61 victory that ties the season series between the two teams at 1-1 after two fantastic games.

Broughton (10 points), Kiki Smith (13 points), and Nina Rickards (17 points, nine rebounds) led Florida’s typically guard-first offense against the Tigers, but each had to hoist at least 13 shots for her points, and Smith and Rickards combined for six assists — all Smith’s — and nine turnovers on the day. Florida also shot just 37 percent from the floor, 22 percent from distance, and 50 percent from the free throw line, managing just 11 makes on 22 free throws.

Still, they kept themselves in a game that had nine tie scores and 10 lead changes until the very end, holding LSU to just 33 percent from the floor. The Tigers earning 32 free throws and draining 22 had much to do with the final margin, as did their 16-2 advantage in points off turnovers.

The loss damages Florida’s NCAA Tournament case only very minimally, as a road loss against a ranked team is never going to hurt all that much. But a win would have put Florida in fantastic shape for a top-two seed in the 2022 SEC Tournament; with LSU now a game clear of Florida, the Gators would need some help from the Tigers to hold that No. 2 spot.

Rest of ‘em roundup: Florida’s men’s tennis team dropped a match to Texas at the ITA Team Indoor Championships on Friday, but recovered to top Virginia and Georgia in weekend action ... in a 15-11 loss to North Carolina on Saturday, the Gators lacrosse team gave up five first-quarter goals, including the last three scored in the period, and two in the last minute of the first half; they never got within two goals of the Tar Heels in the second half, and were outshot on the day, 34-25, despite an otherwise very even box score ... Florida’s women’s golf team finished Sunday’s first round of the Moon Golf Invitational at 3-over 291, five shots off the lead held by Florida State, and will play Monday and Tuesday.