NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When Andrew Nembhard's 3-pointer from the top of the key went through the net without touching any part of the rim early Saturday afternoon, a window opened.
That shot from the freshman gave Florida an upset win over SEC regular-season champion and No. 1-seeded LSU. It also gave Auburn a path to Sunday's SEC tournament final that didn't have any of the league's three best teams — LSU, Tennessee or Kentucky — in its way.
First, though, the fifth-seeded Tigers needed to get through No. 4-seeded South Carolina on Friday. That was easier said than done — the Gamecocks' physical brand of basketball under coach Frank Martin has given Bruce Pearl's teams problems in the past, including a Jan. 22 loss in Columbia S.C.
But it was done — Auburn defeated South Carolina 73-64 behind a tremendous offensive effort from Jared Harper and Bryce Brown.
A win over Florida on Saturday (noon, ESPN) is all that stands between the Tigers and the program's first trip to the SEC tournament championship game since 2000.
"We're in a good spot as a team," Brown said. "We're looking forward to building on it."
Here are three takeaways from Friday's win over South Carolina:
1. Harper, Brown
Harper sat in the chair at his locker surrounded by reporters and TV cameras when a familiar voice came through from behind the mob.
"Do you need some ice for your back, Jared?" junior guard Samir Doughty asked. "You done carried us today."
It was some good-natured ribbing from a teammate, but it wasn't that far from the truth — Harper was everywhere against the Gamecocks. After scoring just five points on 1-for-6 shooting against Missouri, the junior erupted for 27 points on 6-for-13 shooting (12 of 14 from the free throw line), six rebounds and six assists against South Carolina, all of which were team-highs.
Brown had a huge afternoon, too. A day after failing to score until early in the second half against Missouri, Brown hit 4 of 8 shots for 11 points in the first half against South Carolina and finished with 19 points.
2. Limiting Silva
South Carolina's Chris Silva got his. He's always going to get his. He finished with 27 points on 9-for-12 shooting and added 11 rebounds and a blocked shot. That's only five points and three rebounds fewer than the All-SEC big man had in South Carolina's 80-77 win over Auburn two months ago.
But it didn't feel like near as dominant an effort. He usually does his damage in the paint, but four of those nine made shots came from beyond the arc. He only hit 5 of 11 free throws after hitting 11 of 12 the last time.
3. Next up
Auburn has won six straight games and seven of its last eight overall. Its reward for defeating South Carolina is a meeting with the team that just knocked off top-seeded LSU.
Florida entered this week's SEC tournament having lost its final three regular-season games against Georgia, LSU and Kentucky, but after beating Arkansas by 16 on Thursday and upsetting LSU on Friday, it might also be playing some of its best basketball of the season.
And it needs to be: Friday's victory probably puts Florida on the right side of the NCAA tournament bubble, but it still is on the bubble. Auburn doesn't need to win Saturday to guarantee its entry into the tournament. The Gators might.
Austin Wiley being healthy enough to play is significant, even if it is for only a few minutes
Pearl had been consistent this week in saying that Wiley was getting closer to a return from a lower right leg injury. When McLemore picked up his second foul a little more than midway through the second half, the head coach confirmed it, sending the center into the game for the first time since a Feb. 23 loss at Kentucky.
The 6-foot-11 junior immediately made his presence felt after a five-game absence — Brown worked the ball inside to Wiley, and he posted up Silva and made a bucket in the paint.
Wiley played only that one three-minute stretch in the first half — he scored two points, grabbed a rebound and committed a foul.
But the fact that he was healthy enough to play at all is a positive moving forward.