NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Jared Harper calmly dribbled the ball a few steps over half court as the game clock raced toward zero. Thirty seconds left, 20, 15.
He was supposed to go to the basket. He wanted to go to the basket. Auburn led Florida by one point in an SEC Tournament semifinal, and getting downhill could have pushed that lead to three with either a shot at the rim or a foul.
But as Harper began to move forward, Jalen Hudson stepped back every so slightly. That was enough — Auburn's junior point guard pulled up with both feet still firmly on the SEC logo emblazoned on the court and sunk the deep 3-pointer that proved the game-winner.
"I have confidence in my shot more than anything," Harper said. "I put a lot of work into it. He gave me an opportunity, and I made it."
That shot proved the difference in the No. 5-seeded Tigers' 65-62 win over the No. 8-seeded Gators on Saturday, which sends them into Sunday's SEC tournament championship game for the first time since 2000. They'll face Tennessee at noon. The Vols beat Kentucky 82-78 in the other semifinal.
Florida had a chance to tie the game before the celebration began inside Bridgestone Arena. It was only three points after Harper missed the second of two free throws with 6.2 seconds remaining. The ball was in the hands of freshman Andrew Nembhard, who hit the game-winning 3 to beat LSU a day earlier.
Bruce Pearl instructed Bryce Brown to foul Nembhard before he crossed halfcourt. He didn't put a hand on him until after. Nembhard dribbled into a trio of Auburn defenders, who each looked like they put a hand on either him or the ball, and attempted a heavily contested shot that fell well short of hitting the rim.
But the referees never blew their whistles, not for a foul on the floor or on the shot. The final buzzer sounded. Auburn won.
"I saw him miss. That's all I saw," said Samir Doughty, who was one of the three defenders in front of Nembhard. "I saw everybody in the Auburn stands going crazy, so I knew they didn't call a foul. I just knew it was time to shake hands and prepare for the next game."
Three takeaways from the victory:
1. Going to Jared
Everyone watching Saturday's game saw an incredibly confident point guard pull-up and hit a huge 3 at a clutch moment.
All of those things are true. But for the coaches and players inside a joyous Auburn locker room Saturday, none of them are that surprising — that's just what Harper does.
"I already knew it was going in. Jared has done that so many times this season it just feels natural at this point," Bryce Brown said.
"I've had to deal with guarding that the whole year (in practice) and him making shots on me the whole year and watching him make shots on other teammates the same exact way, the same exact moves," Doughty said. "That's a shot that he works on every single day, and he's confident taking that shot."
Perhaps the most impressive thing about that shot was that it was the first and only one Harper made in the second half. He almost single-handedly kept Auburn afloat in the first half, scoring 16 points on 5-for-7 shooting, but he didn't score at all over the first 19:47 of the second half.
Then he scored four in the final 12 seconds of a game Auburn won by three.
"I felt like I should take it upon myself to put myself in a good position to make shots," Harper said. "I felt like I was able to do that."
It's definitely not the first time. Harper was dynamic in Friday's quarterfinal win over South Carolina, too, when he scored a team-high 27 points and hit 12 of 14 free throws. He hit a pair of clutch layups to beat Alabama on March 5. The first time the Tigers played Kentucky, he hit a go-ahead 3 in the final minute and had the game-winning runner glance just off the rim.
The shot Harper made Saturday is in his top three, he said, but it might not even be No. 1.
"Jared has been preparing for these moments for his whole career, from elementary school on," Pearl said. "He may have shown it on a big stage today, but he's been doing it in high school and doing it in practice. Who else would you rather have the ball in those situations?"
2. Few turnovers
Florida could hardly miss all afternoon. It finished the game shooting an incredibly efficient 60.5 percent from the field.
And it still lost by three.
Auburn shot 44.6 percent, but it also made two more field goals on 18 more attempts.
The Gators turned the ball over 19 times, which led to 20 Tigers points. Auburn committed only four turnovers.
3. Wiley's spark
The Gators scored 30 of their 62 points in the paint and doubled the Tigers in rebounds 32-17.
That's an area of the court the Volunteers or Wildcats could expose just as effectively.