Court-Stormer: Gators Stun No. 2 Auburn

GAINESVILLE, Florida. — Front leader Tyree Appleby could celebrate his biggest performance in a Florida uniform and the craziest crowd to invade Exactech Arena in years could celebrate one of the program’s biggest wins in years – and actually storm Billy Donovan Court – here’s what UF fans (and coaches) had to endure a final 109-second dental chair of the Gators’ crazy/intense 63-62 upset Saturday afternoon from second-ranked Auburn.

Try to follow.

* Up eight with less than two minutes to go, the Gators forced the Tigers to a missed shot, but couldn’t recover the long rebound. Auburn guard KD Johnson got it, was fouled and made two free throws. Six points ahead with 1:49 to play.

* After teammate Phlandrous Fleming Jr. made one of two free throws at the UF offensive end, forward Anthony Durji fouled Auburn freshman forward Jabari Smith on a 3-point shot. He dropped all three of the line. Four-point match with 1h30 to play.

* Immediately after Smith’s free throws and facing pressure from the Tigers all over the court, UF Brandon McKissic tried to air the inbound pass from the baseline over the Auburn defense toward his teammate Colin Castleton in the front yard. The pass was 10 feet short. Johnson intercepted and drove to an easy layup. The game lasted four seconds. Two-point game with 1:26 remaining.

A 7-1 run in just 23 seconds. I get it?

* Auburn fouled Castleton with 1:18 to go. He did one out of two. Then the two teams traded missed shots, with Johnson being fouled with 23 seconds remaining. He did both to make it a one-point game.

* Thirteen seconds later, UF called a time out when the point guard Tyree Appleby was circled on his baseline after recovering his dribble. Out of the stoppage, Fleming attempted to throw an inbound pass into Castleton past the Florida bench. The pass was stolen. Auburn ball, Tigers down one, with 7.5 seconds left.

Officials asked for a time out to review the game, but the UF coach Mike White told his players they weren’t getting possession. That’s not all he told them, as their long faces and poor body language were unsettling.

“These last two minutes, they are MORE THAN with! There’s nothing we can do,” White shouted. “We have to stop!

And it really was that simple.

What White saw over the next seven seconds was incredibly strong and inspiring body language from his defenders, coupled with shaky Tigers final possession. They used the 7-foot-1 Walker Kessler to put a high ball screen on Appleby, who was up against point guard Wendell Green Jr., one of the fastest drivers in the SEC. Appleby remained engaged with the ball handler as Castleton and Fleming raced to the spot. Appleby, Castleton and Fleming walled in on Green, who took a few dribbles before trying to force a wraparound pass to Kessler cutting to the basket. Fleming, however, fell to guard Kessler, flipped the ball into McKissic’s hands as time expired and the Rowdy Reptiles – in an all-unknown scene (not to mention the $25,000 fine per the SEC) – emptied themselves onto the floor.

Colin Castleton harasses and blocks Auburn guard’s vision Wendell Green Jr. (1) on the final play of the match.

“It happened so fast,” Castleton said. “I saw Wendell Green coming in at 100 miles an hour downhill. I’m not going to let him have that much weight on me. Most guys would back off, but I had to stay up there because I knew my teammates were supporting me behind me.”

They did it. A few, in fact. And in more ways than one.

“We made a bunch of mistakes, but they made mistakes too,” McKissic said. “We kept playing, kept playing hard, and we deserved it.”

The Gators (17-10, 7-7), snapping a two-game losing streak, gained something no team in UF basketball history can claim. The Tigers (24-3, 12-2), who lost for the first time in regulation this season, became the highest-ranked opponent ever beaten by a Florida team at home. The Gators started the day 0-11 all-time at home against teams ranked No. 1 or No. 2.

“We didn’t finish strong, we just didn’t,” White said. “But what an incredible, physical and intense effort for 40 minutes.”

Speaking of amazing, Appleby scored 20 of his UF career-high 26 points in the second half to lead the comeback. He got plenty of help from Castleton (19 points, 8 rebounds) and a defense that had one of the best offenses in the nation at 40% shooting for the game, 5 for 14 from the 3-line. points, 18 points below. his season average and forced 17 turnovers, much to the delight of the first sold-out crowd to grace the O’Dome in two years.

UF point guard Tyree Appleby (22) readers buy Auburn’s Dylan Cardwell (44) for two of his 20 points in the second half on Saturday.

“Florida forced us to not play well,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said after his program’s 14th straight loss at Gainesville (the last five under his watch), dating back to the 1998 season. “And a lot of that had to do with the crowd.”

It was lit from the tip, with many Tigers fans in the house as well. The Gators, despite shooting just 26%, outplayed the Tigers for most of the first half and trailed by eight when Myreon Jones dropped a 3 at the four-minute mark. At this point, Auburn was 25 percent for the game, but woke up to score the final seven points of the period to trail by one, 22-21, at the break.

The Tigers took that momentum out of the locker room, with Smith scoring 10 of his game-high 28 points on a 14-4 run to start the period — or a 21-4 run connecting the halves — and take a nine-pointer leads, 35-26, with 15 minutes to go.

“We kept telling each other in the group that there was going to be adversity,” Appleby said. “They were going to run and we were going to run.”

The race in Florida has finally arrived. More like an Appleby run.

He scored seven points on a 10-2 run, capped by a 3 from Fleming that gave the Gators their first lead since the end of the first half. Auburn tied the tame with free throws from Smith, but then came another UF 8-2 push with loud 3s from Appleby and McKissic. Kessler’s dunk made it a one-point game, 56-55, but then Castleton posted Kessler for a bucket and, then after a forced turnover, Appleby pulled out of the wing in transition and buried a 3 – the fourth straight field goal for the Gators – with 2:14 left and a 61-53 lead.

“It felt good to see the ball right in the hole,” said Appleby, who made six of his nine shots after halftime, including four of six 3-point attempts and all four of his free throws. “My teammates keep feeding me. We were making saves. At the time it was great.”

Then the pressure moments and mistakes started.

For the Gators, the final minute and a half felt all too familiar in the final 90 seconds Tuesday night at Texas A&M, where they blew a four-point road lead by allowing the Aggies to score the final five; even fouling a 3-point shooter to help in the deciding points.

UF had the last four days to worry about that one, and then the Gators were there again, having to erase that one from their collective heads, along with the disastrous 90 seconds that had just passed before them.

“You’re going to get weak, we’re human,” White said afterwards. “Our guys were also discouraged in the College Station locker room [Texas] the other night, like I’ve never seen them in probably any locker room in a few, if not a few years, in a regular season game,” White said. “But then you have to bounce back. You have to bounce back quickly.”

Tyree Appleby gets the water treatment after the game Keyontae Johnsonmuch to the delight of the victorious UF locker room.

They did enough damage to lose the game. Then I did enough good to earn it. A very big one too.

Worthy of a storm court, apparently.

“They were amazing,” White said of the fans. “Happy for them to have that moment after the game.”

I bet the moments in the home dressing room were also very good.

Chester T. Johnson