K.T. Harrell never even saw it coming.
Harrell was the target of Allen Payne’s inbounds pass with 19 seconds remaining and the Tigers trailing by just two points, but the junior guard had glanced up-court to check the defense and didn’t see the ball. The ball bounced off his arm and into the Florida bench and the Gators held on to win 71-66 at the O’Connell Center on Wednesday night.
“It was just a little miscommunication with the play that we were supposed to run, but that play didn’t lose the game for us,” guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen said. “We all contributed to the loss. We all messed up throughout the whole game. (We had) big turnovers or we didn’t hit shots or we didn’t rebound.”
Shamsid-Deen is correct. That play stands out because it happened in the final seconds, but it was not the only reason the Tigers (12-12, 4-9 SEC) lost to the Gators (24-2, 13-0) for the 16th time in the last 17 meetings. Auburn failed to make a field goal in the game’s final 4:43, missed a free throw that could have given them the lead with 21 seconds remaining, and failed to block out on that missed free throw.
After Harrell’s 3-pointer gave Auburn a 62-60 lead, the Tigers went 0 for 4 from the field. Guard Chris Denson is the SEC’s leading scorer (20.9 points per game), but he’s only a 66.1 percent free throw shooter this season and he missed one that would have broken a 66-all tie with 20 seconds to play. Florida’s Patric Young grabbed that rebound, was immediately fouled and made both free throws to put the Gators ahead 68-66.
The Payne-Harrell turnover happened immediately after.
Auburn nearly pulled the upset because of its 3-point shooting. The Tigers made 10 of 19 3-point shots, although they cooled off somewhat in the second half and made only 4 of 10. Auburn led 38-30 at halftime thanks to six 3-pointers. The eight-point deficit was Florida’s largest halftime deficit of the season. The Gators’ previous largest deficit was three points against Missouri, Kentucky and Wisconsin.
Auburn led by as much as eight points early in the second half but the Gators battled back and the teams traded the lead into the final minute.
“I’m proud of the guys, but I’m also disappointed for them in the same breath because I thought our guys deserved to win,” Auburn coach Tony Barbee said. “But, at the same time, you have to give Florida credit. It’s what they are. They’re a championship team. They don’t beat themselves.
“We beat ourselves in those waning moments,” Barbee said. “That’s why they are what they are and that’s why we aspire to be where they are because they have that type of championship mentality.”
The victory was Florida’s school-record 18th in a row. The Gators’ last loss came on Dec. 2, 2013, against Connecticut.