The Florida-Auburn game began with KeVaughn Allen sitting on the bench. It ended with the ball in his hand.
In between the bookends, Allen seized control of the ball, the game, possibly Florida’s season and maybe even his coach’s job.
Allen shook off being benched to start the game due to being late for a team meeting and a rough last few games to deliver 24 points in a 72-66 upset of #12 Auburn. Among those 24 points was a ridiculous three-quarters-court heave to boost what appeared to be a six point halftime lead to nine as time expired in the first half, back to back threes in the final two minutes of a back and forth game and a fatal pair of free throws in the final twenty seconds.
Allen’s outburst couldn’t have come at a better time for the Gators.
The Gators had been reeling in recent weeks, having lost three straight and five of their last seven. The swoon was so bad that it left many questioning whether Mike White’s team- a trendy Final Four pick as recently as Thanksgiving- would even reach the NCAA Tournament. As a result, Florida entered this game with an ugly 17-11 record and with questions regarding White’s job security beginning to swirl among the fan base.
But with their 21st win over Auburn in the last 22 meetings, the former no longer appears to be an issue, and the latter will have to wait at least until next year. Florida now owns three wins over top 15 ranked teams, a stat that only two other teams in the nation can claim, and is guaranteed to finish no worse than .500 in a conference that’s going to send at least seven, maybe more, teams to the Big Dance. Many so-called bracketologists had the Gators as either a 7 or 8 Regional seed prior to upsetting Auburn, and now they’ve solidified their NCAA Tourney prospects by doing so.
The manner in which they did it that elicits some real hope for them in the tournament, too.
Allen, Kevarrius Hayes and Keith Stone all sat to start the game as a result of being late to the meeting on Friday, which created starting roles for Jalen Hudson (19 points) and Dontay Bassett (a career high 12). In replacing Hayes, Bassett created a legitimate interior presence for the Gators, and his big night paved the way for the Gators to play their most complete game of the conference season.
Auburn has made a living this season on being lethal in transition, which starts with grabbing rebounds and forcing turnovers. Though the Tigers did outrebound Florida, the Gators did their best to limit the transition damage by limiting themselves to eight turnovers on the night, and in turn forcing twice as many. When Auburn did have numbers and try to run transition game, the Gators anticipated it before it happened and jumped the passing lanes to break up the fast break.
And so even without considering the ridiculous 65 foot heave from Allen, a Florida team that we’ve come to best know for blowing second half double digit leads played a nearly perfect game for 40 minutes. There’s a “nearly” in that last sentence because, true to form, Florida held a 46-35 lead with 15 minutes to go and blew that one, too. But in a new development, they fought back- and engaged Auburn in a back and forth battle that they pulled out in the waning moments.
Auburn’s gradual chipping into the Gator lead created some real nerves when Bryce Brown brought them within 56-54 with a corner three with four minutes to go. On the ensuing possession, Mustapha Heron made a three of his own to give Auburn its first lead of the night. That lead lasted as long as it took Jalen Hudson to jog down the floor, square his body and launch his own three- approximately seven seconds- and that three hit nothing but net to put Florida back up 59-57. Auburn’s Jared Harper then tied it back up with a layup to set up a brand new ball game with three minutes left, and the teams traded buckets for the next few possessions to create a 66-66 deadlock with :41 left on the clock.
That’s when Florida put it away.
Hudson gave the Gators the lead for keeps on a driving layup with :26 showing on the scoreboard, an and-one situation which he converted. Auburn’s ensuing failure to score meant that the only thing standing between Florida and the upset was making some free throws, which Allen did to seal the deal. And moments later, the game ended in perhaps the most fitting manner possible- with Allen, the unquestioned hero of the game, securing the rebound of Harper’s missed desperation three to nicely bring the evening full circle.
This Florida team has by no means changed its fate with one regular season victory. Their fate remains unknown, with both the highest peaks and the lowest depths in their forecast pending how well they shoot. But if nothing else, this team has at least somewhat learned how to play defense, and them being able to finish off Auburn late served as a desperately-needed reminder that they are indeed capable of winning these types of games.
And if recent Final Four runs by 10th seeded Syracuse (2016) and 11th seeded VCU (2011) are any indication, all it takes is for this team to string together a few games in a row where it plays up to its potential to erase four months of frustration and be remembered the way many thought it would when the season began.