Cue the Pat Benatar music.
Hit me with your best shot
Why don’t you hit me
With your best shot
Hit me with your best shot
The Auburn Tigers came into the O’Connell Center on Wednesday night with a 4-8 conference record and barely over .500 overall at 12-11 seeking to hit the Gators with their best shot. A young team with nothing to lose they fired away from start to finish and it was almost enough as they came within 40 seconds and a couple of bad plays of upsetting the #2 team in the country on the road.
Behind freshman Tahj Shamshid-Deen’s hot three point shooting (5-8) the Tigers outplayed the favored Gators all evening before a couple of bad plays and some opportunistic free throw shooting by the Gators doomed them down the stretch. The Gators escaped with a 71-66 victory and kept their hopes of an undefeated conference season alive. It was the middle game of a tough 5 game stretch and only home game during that span, the one many expected to be a cake walk. It was anything but for the Gators.
The game started well for the Tigers as they hit their first three point shot and went 5-9 from beyond the arc in the first half taking a quick lead which they maintained for most of the first half. They continued their hot shooting fending off a 12-0 Gator run to take a 38-30 halftime lead, the largest halftime deficit the Gators faced all season.
The Gators defense simply wasn’t up to standard in the first half and, of course, that probably had as much to do with how well the Tigers were playing as anything else. For his part, Donovan warned his team of complacency in the face of a hungry team which is better than it’s record might suggest.
“Coming into the half, we were not there like I thought we needed to be,” head coach Billy Donovan said afterwards. “All the things you can imagine coming out of last week I hit these guys with in terms of being able to prepare, start over, the process of going into the next game. I felt like this game was going to be a battle. They’d won four out of their last six. I think they’re playing well, they’ve got two of the best scorers collectively in the country. They run really good stuff. They’ve been in basically every game.
Suddenly, the Gators were in a ballgame and whatever they talked about in the locker room at half time appeared to go in one ear and out the other as Shamshid-Deen hit his fifth three pointer of the game less than a minute into the second half forcing head coach Billy Donovan to call a quick timeout. He appeared to be highly upset with forward Casey Prather who had been guarding Shamshid-Deen and an adjustment was made. The timeout and adjustment was successful as Shamshid-Deen would not score again.
“Yeah I had enough of watching him (Shamshid-Deen) constantly shooting threes over him (Prather),” Billy Donovan said. “I told him, I said ‘I’m taking you off him’ and he wanted to guard him. I basically said ‘if he gets one more off you’re coming off him and, matter of fact, you’re going to come out of the game’. “
The Tigers continued to battle however, not backing down and running their offense effectively all evening. When they weren’t shooting threes over the top of the Gator defense, they were driving through the teeth of it. But it was their three point shooting that did the most damage. They finished 22-46 (47.8%) overall from the field and a sparkling 10-19 (52.6%) from beyond the arc. For sure it wasn’t one of the Gators best defensive efforts of the season.
“One of the things we had talked about with these guys was the three point line because you have two problems guarding them,” said Donovan. “The first thing is, we did a phenomenal job on Denson and Harrell of keeping them out of the lane. The bad part of that was when we did do that and they skipped it and moved it to the next guy we did not react quick enough to take away threes. So we did a much, much better job against those two guys than we did the first time but where they really hurt us was from the three point line.”
Donovan was very unhappy with the Gators effort as they were outplayed for most of the game by the inspired Tigers team who are much better than their 12-12 record would suggest. All the talk the past week about how well the Gator defense had played in tough road victories over Tennessee and Kentucky went out the window with the quickness of a Tiger three point shot.
“I think, first, I thought Auburn outplayed us,” Donovan admitted. “Saying it like it is. We did not do a very good job defensively. This is kind of some of the things I have talked about in the past, when we get all this praise for how good our defense is, and it’s really not something that just you’re always great defensively. And give Auburn credit because they really shot the ball extremely well. They were averaging about five made threes per game, they obviously made ten. And what makes it even that much more difficult is they only needed nineteen shots to do it.”
Donovan added, “Auburn came in here with great energy and fire. and our guys, there’s some uncharted territory here, where you got to be able to handle some of this stuff that’s been thrown at these guys.”
Despite the lack of a collective team focus, the Gators did battle back all night and there were some strong individual play particularly on the offensive end. Casey Prather finished with 16 points, nine rebounds, and 2 steals barely missing a double-double. DeVon Walker played well in extended minutes off the bench hitting a couple of big three point shots which helped keep the Gators in the game finishing with 6 points, 1 rebound, and 2 assists.
They also did a great job on the free throw line particularly down the stretch, an area that has been sketchy for the Gators this season, finishing 23-28 (82.1%). The work they’ve put in to correct their poor shooting earlier in the season has paid off.
“These guys have worked hard, we’ve spent time, we’ve gotten better there,” Donovan said. “But we’ve got to keep getting better.”
Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin had another great game finishing with 15 points, 4 assists, with only one turnover. It was his first turnover in his last three games. The star of the game, however, was senior center Patric Young who came back from an almost non-existent first half with no points and only 1 rebound to take control of the game in the second half. He came out o halftime with grit and determination repeatedly making hustle plays including running the floor to block an Auburn transition lay up from behind. Young finished with a game high 17 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks.
For sure, it was a battle throughout as the Gators opened the second half on an 11-3 run to tie the score at 41 and the teams traded baskets and the lead changed hands a number of times the last ten minutes. Still the Gators were on upset alert with a minute left to play and the Gators down by two after Scottie Wilbekin missed a jump shot and the Tigers rebounded. A strong defensive possession resulted in a missed Auburn jump shot and a strong Patric Young rebound. The Gators came down and Wilbekin found an open Michael Frazier, who finished with 9 points, at the top of the key where he drained his third three point shot of the game to take a one point lead at 66-65.
Then the Tigers fell apart. Auburn’s Chris Denson missed the second of his two free throw attempts following a Will Yeguete foul and then Ashaun Dixon-Tatum quickly and head scratchingly fouled Patric Young immediately. Young drained both of his free throws to take a two point lead at 68-66 and then once again Auburn made a bone headed play. Allen Payne threw the inbounds pass to Harrell who wasn’t ready for it and the ball skipped into the Gators bench for a turnover which forced Auburn to quickly foul Scottie Wilbekin who hit both free throws for a four point Gator lead. Another missed Tiger three pointer and Gator rebound led to another free throw for the final 71-66 score.
The Gators played hard particularly at the end and took advantage of the Auburn mistakes but certainly the Tigers helped the Gators out in extending their home court win streak to 30 games a school record.
“We got some help from Auburn coming down the stretch,” Donovan said. “The score’s tied, they miss a free throw, and I was getting ready to call a timeout as the ball crossed half court and Dixon-Tatum fouls Patric Young. So that’s not really anything to do with us. Then Patric makes two free throws, then they throw the ball out of bounds, and then Scottie makes two free throws. So Frazier made a really, really big shot which was big in the game, to get the game back. And then I thought the other thing that was good was we made free throws. And then what we did do, the last three or four minutes of the game, we held them scoreless. So those things were good.”
Auburn for sure gave the Gators their best shot but it just wasn’t quite enough there at the end.
“Yeah, I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Donovan said. “I think when you talk about that, one of the things that I talk to our guys alot about is being undefeated in the league, ranking, all that stuff, no question you’re going to get everybody’s best shot. But I like to look at it the other way, are we going to give our best shot? That’s all well and good and we can know that but are we going to give our best shot? I didn’t think today we did that. And I think that Auburn had a lot more bounce, they were more lively. They played fearlessly, they attacked, they were aggressive, they were confident. They knew where the ball was going, what they were doing. And they made plays when they needed to make plays.”
Despite the tougher than expected victory and the many defensive lapses, it is encouraging that the Gators continue to find ways to win despite how well they play or how well the opponent plays. In the past the Gators have struggled in close games down the stretch as evidenced by all three of their Elite Eight losses the last three seasons.
“The one thing I would say that I have tried to get through our guys heads, and we’ve had some times with these guys when they were younger, that they have a tendency in years past to say ‘oh my gosh, the game,what is happening?’ Donovan said. “I think that the thing I’ve tried to get across to our guys is even though we’re not playing great, and I thought Auburn played phenomenal, we’re still in the game, so anything that has happened in the past is over. The next most important thing is the next possession and what we’re doing. It wasn’t like we were down by ten or fifteen points. It was a one possession game pretty much from about the three or four minute mark on. So it was still close, just trying to keep our guys engaged in the game, I think they’ve done a better job of staying engaged like that.”
The victory was the Gators 18th consecutive and set a school record. Donovan said the team will celebrate the victory despite how disappointing their play was and then get back to work correcting mistakes and learning from this game.
“I believe every time you win you celebrate after a game. I think you always celebrate a win. I think you always do that. Our guys worked hard to prepare, it was a hard fought game. Auburn’s a good team, we knew that. I can’t on one end say Auburn’s a good team to our guys, it’s going to be a battle and a war, and then win the game and walk off the floor and say I’m disappointed. So we’re going to enjoy the win, but we’re going to have to come back tomorrow and certainly make some corrections and get better.”
Next up for the Gators is a noon eastern matchup against Marshall Henderson and the Ole Miss Rebels in Oxford, Mississippi on Saturday. The game will be broadcast live on CBS.