Auburn outscores Florida 32-12 at the free-throw line to advance in the SEC despite the absence of star Chris Porter.
By JOANNE KORTH
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2000
ATLANTA -- Florida's young basketball team has learned more from its few losses this season than its many victories, but the Gators are running out of time to learn lessons the hard way.
One more loss will be their last.
No. 11 Florida was bounced from the Southeastern Conference men's basketball tournament by a 78-70 loss to Auburn on Friday at the Georgia Dome, completely outplayed by a team the Gators beat by 29 two weeks ago.
"We didn't come to play," guard Mike Miller said. "We underestimated them, and that hurts. It was our fault, but we've got to rebuild. It's do or die from now on, and we have to get ready for the NCAA Tournament."
Florida (25-6) was unable to overcome a huge disparity in free throws and an Auburn team inspired to win for the first time without its star, senior Chris Porter, who learned hours before tipoff that his college career was over.
Porter, suspended Feb. 27, admitted accepting $2,500 from an agent. The Tigers lost their final three regular-season games without him and learned Friday they would never get him back as Porter's final appeal to the NCAA was denied.
"This was an inspirational win," Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said.
Auburn (22-8) plays South Carolina (15-16) in the semifinals at 1 p.m. today.
Florida's strategy of wearing down opponents with full-court pressure backfired as the Gators committed a season-high 32 fouls. Auburn made 32 of 44 free throws to 12 of 18 for Florida.
"It was just one foul after another, after another, after another," UF coach Billy Donovan said. "It got to a point where our style of play hurt us. We did not wear down Auburn because we allowed them to rest at the free-throw line.
"Now, I'm not going to say I thought all of our guys fouled all those times, because it was ridiculous that they went to the free-throw line 44 times compared to our 18. It's very difficult to play under those circumstances."
No team knows more about difficult circumstances than Auburn, which has struggled to rebuild team chemistry without leading scorer Porter. The Tigers' senior trio of Doc Robinson, Daymeon Fishback and Mamadou N'diaye decided Friday that time was running out.
"We love Chris," said Fishback, who led the Tigers with a season-high 21 points and career-high 14 rebounds, his first double double. "We know he made a mistake, but everyone makes mistakes. We love him and that's what we played for. We kept reminding ourselves we had precious time left."
Auburn led 44-41 at halftime despite making just 11 field goals on 32 percent shooting. The reason: 19 free throws. The Tigers went to the line 25 times in the half. The Gators were 2-for-4.
Auburn scored 16 straight on free throws during a seven-minute span in which it went from a seven-point lead to a three-point deficit and back to a two-point lead, all without a field goal.
Twice in the second half Florida cut the margin to two, but it was unable to mount one of its trademark scoring runs after it was forced to abandon its full-court press.
"We fouled too much in the first half, and in the second half we didn't have a chance to press because we were all in foul trouble," said Miller, who had 14 points and 11 rebounds. "Without pressing, it's hard to put on a run."
Auburn made 10 of 12 free throws in the final minute to preserve the win.
Freshman backup center Donnell Harvey led the Gators with 15 points.
Donovan declined to speculate how the loss might affect the Gators' seeding in the NCAA Tournament, saying it didn't matter.
"I'm more worried about these guys understanding what's at stake, because they didn't understand (Friday)," Donovan said. "I can't wait to practice. ... I don't know if this woke them up or not, but the next few days they'll be woken up."