Florida responded to the challenge of dissecting a complicated Auburn zone defense Saturday evening by stepping up its game defensively in the second half and showing far more patience on the offensive end. In extending their record to 16-0 (3-0 in the SEC), the Gators won in spite of 39.7 percent shooting from the field, compensating for the lack of offensive production by forcing Auburn into 23 turnovers that Florida turned into 20 points. The points off turnovers and the differential at the foul line (Florida was 20-27, Auburn was 3-5) proved to be the difference in the game.
Auburn's zone was designed to keep the Gators from getting the ball inside where there was a substantial size advantage in UF's favor. That gave Florida some pretty good looks from the outside but this was a night that both of the Gators' lights-out three-point shooters weren't on their games. Lee Humphrey, leading the nation in three-point shooting at 55.3 percent, went 3-9 from beyond the arc (3-10 overall) and Green went 3-8 (also 3-10 overall).
"This was a game when our two best three-point shooters were 6-20," said Caoch Billy Donovan. "They're going to have bad shooting nights sometime. The best thing you can do against a zone is knock down perimeter shots and if you knock down perimeter shots they're going to come out of it in a hurry."
Because the Gators couldn't consistently knock down the three-ball, Auburn was content to stay in the zone and it allowed the Tigers to keep it close. The Gators trailed 33-30 with 52 seconds remaining in the half but a pair of free throws by Green (12-12 from the foul line for the night) and a layup by Al Horford with one second left lifted Florida to a one-point halftime lead, 34-33.
At the half, Donovan made some adjustments in how the Gators would attack Auburn and that meant a better effort to get the ball inside where Florida's four post players (Horford, Joakim Noah, Chris Richard and Adrian Moss) were all taller than Auburn's tallest player. Florida had plenty of chances to score inside in the first half but couldn't shots to drop.
"Sometimes we play too pretty," said Richard, whose seven points fueled a 10-0 Florida run that broke the game open in the second half. "Instead of trying to tip the ball in or bank it in off the glass, we need to dunk the ball more. I just have to start finishing and dunking. I know I can dunk more than I am now."
Throughout the season, Donovan said the true test of this team would come on the nights when the shots weren't falling and this was one of those games he was talking about. Florida couldn't consistently hit the shots but the Gators found a way to win the game.
"I've never seen our team miss as many easy baskets as we did tonight," said Donovan. "In and around the basket we just couldn't finish. It was one of those nights when nothing offensively was going well for us. I thought we had some pretty decent looks, too.
"The question has been how are we going to respond when we don't shoot the ball well? Well, here's a night when we didn't shoot the ball well. That's going to happen but you have to find other ways to win the game."
Florida had 10 points at the half from Noah, Horford, Moss and Richard but finished the game with 31 points from the inside guys.
"I felt our bigger people were more of a factor in the second half than they were in the first half not because they weren't getting the ball but because they finished better," said Donovan.
It was the defense that stepped it up particularly during that three-minute second half stretch when the Gators made their run to break the game open. While Florida was riding Richard on the offensive end, on defense the Gators forced Auburn into 0-4 shooting and one critical turnover that expanded Florida's lead from two points to 59-47 with 8:20 remaining in the game.
"There's something about us," said Horford, who finished the night with 14 points, seven rebounds, three blocked shots, two steals and an assist. "Somebody gets a steal, somebody gets out on the break and that just gets our defense going and we make our run."
With a more comfortable lead to work with, the Gators dug in their heels on defense. The Gators limited Auburn to just 10 points in the final eight minutes of the game and closed the Tigers out by hitting 10-12 free throws during that same stretch.
Donovan wanted the Gators to play an up tempo game but Florida's press was pretty much neutralized by the ball handling of Auburn point guard Quantez Robertson and the inability of the Gators to score points.
"I would have liked to press more than we did but because we couldn't score and we shot such a low percentage we couldn't put the press on like we wanted to," said Donovan.
That the Gators had difficulty with Auburn (8-6, 0-3 in the SEC) wasn't a case of a highly ranked team taking a night off or reading its press clippings. Donovan says that this isn't the type of team that has a big head or even one that dwells on past accomplishments. Instead of looking back, he said the team has done a good job of taking it one game at a time and focusing in on winning that next game.
"This is a unique group of kids," said Donovan. "You've got a group of kids that are very humble; they very unselfish and they are very motivated and driven. They really are a group that loves challenges, loves competing and loves playing. They're not reading press clippings and getting excited. I never hear them talking about past things. I really believe they like being challenged and taking on the next challenge."
The next challenge will be lowly Savannah State in a non-conference game at the O'Connell Center Wednesday night. That will be followed by a two-game road trip to Tennessee and South Carolina that promises to provide a stern challenge not only because they are good teams, but because the crowds will be frenzied due to Florida's lofty national ranking.
Donovan said the team doesn't even think about the polls but instead the focus is on improving as a team and getting better.
"They understand that it's really other people's opinions [polls] and it's not real, it's not fair and it's not true," he said. "So let's focus on truth and reality right now --- we're 16-0 and we have another game coming up on Wednesday and another one on Saturday.
"The polls where people think and recognition or whatever that may be doesn't get us one more basket or doesn't help us win one more game. There's no question that I think they take a level of pride in being 16-0 but I also think they have taken some pride in being the best team they can."
To be the best they can be, they have to respond to the challenge of being the marked team, the one that everybody wants to knock off.
"Now we are a target," said Green. "Whatever team we play we're going to get their best shot. Auburn came in and played a very hard game. It's the SEC. We have a bulls-eye on our back and we're just trying to take it game to game."