Auburn beats Florida in SEC tournament

Published 8:30 pm Friday, March 13, 2009

TAMPA, Fla. — No one can ignore Auburn now. Maybe not even the NCAA tournament selection committe.

Korvotney Barber had 12 points, 10 rebounds and a huge dunk in the final minute to help Auburn beat Florida 61-58 Friday night in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament.

Frankie Sullivan scored 12 points and Tay Waller and Lucas Hargrove added 11 for the Tigers, who snapped a 10-game losing streak to the Gators. Auburn won for the ninth time in their last 10 games and probably secured a spot in the NCAA tournament.

“You certainly can’t ignore what’s happened here the last month and a half,” Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said. “We’re excited to be playing the next game. Every game coming down the stretch has been like an NCAA tournament game.

“They feel like they’ve been ignored, they feel like they’ve been blown off. You can’t ignore what these kids have done.”

The Tigers (22-10) advanced to play Tennessee in the semifinals Saturday.

Florida, meanwhile, probably will end up in the NIT for a second consecutive season after winning back-to-back national titles.

“We’ll all find out Sunday,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said.

After Barber’s dunk made it 60-55 with 25 seconds to play, Walter Hodge hit a roll-around-the-rim 3-pointer to get Florida back in it. The Gators (23-10) had a chance to tie on the final possession, but Quantez Robertson blocked Erving Walker’s 3-point attempt just before the buzzer.

Walker immediately broke down in tears as the Tigers celebrated at midcourt. Hodge consoled the 5-foot-7 guard as they trudged to the locker room.

“That was not his fault,” Hodge said. “He just has to keep his head up. He played a great game.”

Walker finished with 14 points. Alex Tyus led Florida with 21 points and 11 rebounds.

Florida’s leading scorer on the season, Nick Calathes, struggled once again. He was 3-of-13 shooting, missed five of six shots from 3-point range and finished with seven points, 11 rebounds and five assists.

Auburn credited DeWayne Reed with shutting down Calathes.

“Reed was tremendous,” Lebo said. “You’re not going to see it here on the stat sheet. His defensive pressure on Calathes, he was really the key to the game.”

The Gators got off to a strong start from behind the arc, making five of their first seven, but then missed 15 of 18 the rest of the way.

Still, they kept it close. The difference was Auburn’s resiliency. Three times Walker appeared to give Florida some momentum in a close game, but the Tigers answered each of his big buckets with 3-pointers.

Walker hit a 3 that put the Gators ahead 38-33 with 14 minutes to play, but DeWayne Reed matched it on the next possession. Walker hit another one to retake the Gators’ lead at 46-44 with 7:50 to play, but Waller followed with one at the other end. Walker also had a floater in the lane with 2:40 remaining that sliced Auburn’s lead to one again, only to see Hargrove answer with a 3.

The result was the tournament’s first close game in the opening two rounds.

It may prove to be huge for Auburn.

South Carolina’s loss earlier in the day — the team’s third in its last four games — seemingly made this matchup a play-in game for the NCAA tournament. No. 20 LSU and Tennessee have likely solidified spots in the 65-team field, and the SEC has received at least five berths in each of the last 12 years.

Auburn has made a strong case down the stretch, entering the tournament as the league’s hottest team and then beating Florida in what was practically a home game for the Gators.

“I think Jeff has done a fabulous job,” Donovan said. “I love to see as many teams from our league go (to the tournament). They are as good as any team and playing as well as any team in the league right now. … I hope they do make it.”

Florida had an eight-point lead, 25-17, late in the first half. But the Gators cooled off considerably before intermission. They missed six straight from behind the arc, a problem for a team that has a tough time finding ways to win when it shoots poorly.

Auburn struggled from the field the entire first half, shooting 38 percent from the field and making 5 of 13 from 3-point range, but managed to close the deficit to 29-28 on Sullivan’s putback in the waning seconds.

Auburn’s shooting woes were reminiscent of the first meeting against Florida on Jan. 14. The Tigers missed 11 free throws and 22 shots from behind the arc.

Florida was better in both areas and eked out a 68-65 victory.

The Tigers didn’t have the same woes as the first matchup, not with their soaring confidence and so much at stake.

“Now that we’re jelling on offense and defense and competing night in and night out, we can do anything,” Richardson said. “We can win these games.”