In the final seconds of the game, Florida led No. 2 Auburn by just one point.
The Tigers had possession with just 7.5 seconds remaining. A season-defining win for Florida hung in the balance. Auburn guard Wendell Green came roaring downhill off a screen for a final chance at victory.
The buzzer sounded and the crowd took the court to relish in the moment with the team. Florida survived to earn its highest-ranked win inside the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
Florida (17-10, 7-7) defeated No. 2 Auburn (24-3, 12-2) in a monumental upset that may very well revive the Gators’ tournament hopes after a loss to Texas A&M on Tuesday put them in jeopardy.
The first half was a defensive struggle.
Florida shot 25% from the floor and from three in the opening period. Auburn was comparatively streaky, shooting just 33.3% on all shots. The Gators grasped the lead through their effort away from the offensive end. UF snagged four steals and forward Colin Castleton had two stifling blocks in the first half.
There were moments of brilliance from Florida. The Gators led by as much as eight in the half.
Florida honed in on limiting the impact of the nation’s best shot blocker, Walker Kessler. Auburn’s 7-foot-1-inch forward averages 4.5 blocks per game this season but failed to record one against UF.
Castleton, who saw the majority of matchups with Kessler, was a major offensive presence in the first. The senior scored 10 points on 50% shooting which included signature physical buckets down low and a few mid-range jumpers.
“I’m a fighter,” Castleton said. “It doesn’t matter what game or who I’m playing against, I’m gonna play as hard as I can and give everything I have.”
Florida was up just one point, 22-21, entering halftime, but the O’Dome crowd was alive as ever.
The Gators had an upset lasered in their sights, playing with an excess of energy despite a lackluster offensive performance to start the game.
Auburn entered the second half a completely different team.
The Tigers stormed out of the locker room with an 11-6 run to take control of the game. The momentum swing can be attributed to projected NBA lottery pick Jabari Smith’s 20 second-half points and an outpouring of support from the many Tigers fans in attendance.
Castleton called Smith one of the best players he’s ever played against. UF guard Tyree Appleby chuckled and struggled to find the words to describe Smith’s performance before settling on “Yeah, he’s nice.”
Appleby wasn’t content letting the game slip away easily.
The senior out of Jacksonville, Arkansas, finished with a season-high 26 points. Florida broke through again with seven minutes remaining, reclaiming the lead, 48-46, on a Phlandrous Fleming Jr. 3-pointer.
Florida cashed in seven of 13 looks from behind the arc in the second period and closed the game by making four of its last five field goals. The Gators held a 48% field-goal percentage in the second half after an abysmal first half of shooting. The late-game resurgence propelled the Gators to victory and sent the crowd into a frenzy.
“Without [the fans] we may have been a point short, or five or ten,” head coach Mike White said. “They were a factor. We forced 17 turnovers, that’s not happening without them. They were incredible and I’m happy they got a chance to have that moment postgame.”
Florida faces another tough opponent in No. 23 Arkansas Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. The game will be broadcast on ESPN 2.
Jackson Castellano is a second-year sports journalism student and the assistant sports editor at the Alligator. In the past, he has covered UF basketball and baseball for the Alligator and was an associate editor at ClutchPoints.