Saturday's 73-70 basketball loss to the fourth-ranked Florida Gators was a major blow to the Auburn Tigers and their chances of winning an NCAA Tournament bid. The Gators held off a late charge with some clutch foul shooting and key baskets when they had to have them to improve to 24-4 overall and 12-2 in the SEC.
Auburn, which dropped to 18-9 overall and 7-7 in the league with two regular season conference games to play, finds itself in major jeopardy of being a spectator for this year's NCAA Big Dance despite Florida coach Billy Donovan's assessment of the Tigers.
"Auburn is as tough as anybody we have played all season," Donovan said. "They should be in the NCAA Tournament. I don't think there is any doubt about that if they finish 8-8 in what is the No. 1-rated conference in the nation."
However, Auburn's players realize just how costly Saturday's loss is to their team's postseason hopes. "This is a real disappointing game," said Derrick Bird, the senior guard who led the Tigers with 21 points. "Now we have got to get the next two games and then focus on doing well in the SEC Tournament."
Derrick Bird drives vs. Florida's Chrstian Drejer.
Auburn closes its home season on Wednesday night against the Arkansas Razorbacks in a game it will be favored to win, however, the regular season finale is at Mississippi State, the team in first place in the SEC West and a team that caused Auburn major matchup problems in the first meeting at Auburn. Those matchup problems aren't going away, especially if sophomore forward Brandon Robinson is not physically able to be a factor.
Robinson tried to play in the first half, but was pulled after only four minutes and didn't see action in the second half. "He just couldn't get up and down," Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said.
Not having Robinson was a major problem on Saturday against the Gators, Bird noted. "We needed his energy and his rebounding, too."
Bird said the game was frustrating to him personally because he believed the Tigers should have beaten the fourth-ranked Gators. "We didn't do a good job of attacking their zone and we didn't get back on defense at times," he said.
Florida senior Matt Bonner caused Auburn major problems the whole game. He was a threat from inside and outside, hitting 8-13 field goals to lead all scorers with 23 points. He led the Gators in rebounding with eight, made two of three treys and added three assists.
Bonner made the key play of the game, according to Donovan and Ellis, with 23.3 seconds left. Auburn had cut the lead to 70-67 on a pair of free throws by Marquis Daniels with 54 seconds left. Instead of trying to foul the visitors, Auburn tried for a defensive stop.
Bonner got the basketball outside the three-point line with the 35-second clock becoming a factor. Instead of putting up a three, he saw a path to the lane. Kyle Davis was forced to foul him with 23.3 seconds left and Bonner calmly buried both free throws to stretch the lead for five. Bonner said that he was glad he decided to drive instead of shoot. "Coach Donovan wants us to take the ball to the basket in that type of situation instead of settling for a jump shot," Bonner said.
Daniels then missed a three-point shot from the wing and Florida got the rebound. Bonner added one more free throw to stretch the lead to six and a late three-point shot by Lewis Monroe only changed the margin of victory.
Lewis Monroe takes a three-point shot vs. the Gators. He took three in the game and made two.
Donovan said a key to his team's victory was the good defensive job that senior Justin Hamilton did on Daniels. "He only allowed Daniels three shots in the first half," the Gator coach pointed out. Daniels agreed that Hamilton did a good job. "He has long arms and he is strong," said the Auburn senior, who scored 13 points but made just 4-11 field goals and turned the ball over six times.
The Tigers got 21 points from Bird, who had been struggling offensively in recent games. Marco Killingsworth added 14 points and seven rebounds. Davis was Auburn's top rebounder with nine and added five blocked shots, three steals and six points before fouling out after 34 minutes of playing time.
Monroe had a solid game at the point with nine points, four assists, two steals and no turnovers in 34 minutes as he looks almost recovered from his toe sprain. However, Robinson was not ready to contribute as he continues to try to rehab his sprained ankle. He got off two shots near the basket and missed both badly. He was in the game just four minutes before Ellis decided to go another route.
Ellis played reserves Troy Gaines, Nathan Watson, Rodney Tucker, Donny Calton and Chris Lollar, but no one from that group could score except for Gaines, who contributed seven points in 11 minutes. However, a matchup problem with Gaines in the game in the second half forced the Tigers to have to pull him when the Gators used six-foot-nine Christian Drejer at guard. He used his 10-inch height advantage to dish off five assists and add a pair of baskets.
The lead changed hands early in the game, but Auburn could never put together a run against the Gators in the first 20 minutes. However, Florida put together two good runs on the Tigers. The second one wasn't answered by the home team, which found itself down 34-26 at intermission because the Gators had made 6-11 three-pointers and shot 44 percent while Auburn had shot just 35.7 percent and made 3-9 threes.
Auburn warmed up from the field in the second half and finished the game at 43.3 percent from the field and hit 10-26 three-pointers while the Gators made 8-16.
Auburn held a 34-31 rebounding edge, but had 15 turnovers, one more than the Gators. "I thought the points Florida made off our turnovers were costly," Ellis said. His team hit 8-12 free throws while the Gators made 15-22 and hit 47.2 percent of their field goals for the contest.
Like Bird, Daniels said the game was one that Auburn really needed and could have won, but the senior forward said the Gators played well. "Florida did a good job of executing down the stretch," Daniels said. "
Daniels said not having Robinson available hurt the Tigers against Florida's big and talented front line and Ellis agreed. "We have got to get him back healthy," the Auburn coach said. "He is trying to get well."
Auburn returns to action on Wednesday night against Arkansas at 7 p.m. at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum.