Guard Tyree Appleby walked the ball up the court facing a 10-point deficit and a rowdy Auburn Jungle crowd in the closing minutes of Florida men’s basketball’s second SEC game Saturday night. The senior spotted up for a three from the wing, attempting to ignite UF’s sputtering offensive engine.
A flurry of hands chased down the rebound before the referee signaled a jump ball, which Auburn subsequently won. Minutes later, Tigers star Jabari Smith strutted up the court, relishing in cheers from the Auburn faithful as his team continued their undefeated conference reign.
Florida (9-5, 0-2) fell to Auburn (14-1, 3-0) 85-73 as the Gators could not keep up with the Tiger's 11-man rotation used to its maximum potential, featuring 35 points from their bench unit.
“[Auburn] are terrific,” White said. “They were better. That said, I thought we played really hard. Unfortunately, good offense just beats good defense.”
The Gators grasped the momentum early with a defensive stop and an Appleby three-pointer, but Auburn quickly took control in the first half.
Despite forcing nine turnovers for 15 points, Florida struggled to keep up with the pace of Auburn, who had five players with 5+ points in the first. AU smothered the defensive side as well, holding Florida to 10-24 shooting from the floor.
Jabari Smith’s opening basket at the rim followed immediately by a three-point basket set the tone early for Auburn. Smith, the highly touted draft prospect, was carrying a lighter load with the help of an early bench presence from junior Jaylin WIlliams on the way to a season high 14 points.
After 20 minutes, the scoreboard read 39-30. Florida entered the locker room surrounded by a Auburn Arena crowd that smelled blood. Appleby led the way with 11, while the Gators’ usual centerpiece Colin Castleton was held to just one field goal in the first half.
“At halftime we said we just have to stay solid,” senior forward Anthony Duruji said. “I think that's what we did.”
Florida’s offense got a second-half spark from Duruji to the tune of 14 points. Appleby turned his early scoring into playmaking, accounting for nine assists during Saturday night’s contest.
Florida cut Auburn’s lead down to four points exiting the second TV timeout. The momentum was beginning to swing back in the Gators’ favor thanks to the second half resurgence of Castleton, who finished the game with 22 points and 10 rebounds, his sixth double-double of the season.
Castleton called for the ball multiple times in the post down the stretch, making light work of his matchup against fellow former Michigan Wolverine Walker Kessler. Kessler eventually fouled out in his efforts to slow down Castleton during one of his better performances this season.
Florida couldn't seem to keep hold of momentum, as every possible game-shifting basket for the Gators was quickly responded to by Auburn’s blazing transition offense that caught UF napping on more than one occasion.
After a missed foul on Penn State transfer guard Myreon Jones and an airball from Duruji on the other end, things were beginning to look irreversibly bleak for the Gators, down 10 with four to go.
Auburn rode the momentum to the closing buzzer, and Florida was given its second conference loss of the season. The Gators will have to adjust to the pace of SEC basketball if they want to find success as conference play marches on.
“We’ve gotta keep growing, get better, and embrace the process,” Duruji said.
Florida takes on No. 21 Louisiana State inside the Stephen C. O’Connell Center January 12 at 7:00 p.m.