Big pic­ture

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Sports -

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Florida Ga­tors pulled off back-to-back up­sets dur­ing the SEC Tour­na­ment, but this time a late bucket was a dag­ger they couldn’t over­come.

Jared Harper hit a 3-pointer with 12 sec­onds left as No. 22 Auburn held off UF 65-62 Satur­day to reach the South­east­ern Con­fer­ence Tour­na­ment cham­pi­onship for the first time since 2000.

Auburn (25-9) came in as the fifth-seeded team af­ter shar­ing the SEC reg­u­lar-sea­son ti­tle a year ago, and now the Tigers will play No. 8 Ten­nessee, an 82-78 win­ner over No. 4 Ken­tucky, on Sun­day. The Tigers will be push­ing for their sec­ond tour­na­ment cham­pi­onship in school his­tory and first since 1985. The ti­tle game also will give them a chance to bur­nish their NCAA Tour­na­ment seed­ing.

“There’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween hav­ing a Top 25 team and hav­ing a Top 25 pro­gram,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “The more we win, the more we have both.”

Florida (19-15) won two SEC Tour­na­ment games, putting the Ga­tors in po­si­tion to po­ten­tially claim an at-large bid.

“We’re just try­ing to stay hope­ful,” Ga­tors se­nior Ke­var­rius Hayes said. “It’s up to the se­lec­tion com­mit­tee and what they de­cide.”

This game felt much more like a con­so­la­tion prize and warm-up to the other semi­fi­nal, with some of the big­gest cheers com­ing on a re­minder that Ken­tuck­yTen­nessee was up next.

Auburn and Florida did their best to put on a good show with lots of shoot­ing, and the Ga­tors putting on a clinic in pre­ci­sion to keep pace with the Tigers’ of­fense.

The Ga­tors turned in their best shoot­ing per­for­mance of the sea­son (60.5 per­cent) on their fewest shot at­tempts of the year (38). Florida also dom­i­nated on the boards (32-17).

“It’s re­ally hard to look at that stat sheet and ex­plain an Auburn vic­tory,” Pearl said.

Hayes’ dunk with 1:11 left to pull Florida within 61-60 set up a fran­tic fin­ish.

Auburn’s fourth and fi­nal turnover came with 57 sec­onds left when Chuma Okeke was too slow get­ting the ball across mid­court. Key­on­tae John­son missed for Florida, and Harper an­swered with a 3 — his lone made bas­ket of the sec­ond half. Jalen Hud­son drove for a layup with 7.4 sec­onds to go, then Harper hit one of two free throws with 6.2 sec­onds left.

John­son re­bounded the missed free throw, got the ball to Hud­son, who passed to An­drew Nem­b­hard, who up­set No. 9 LSU in the quar­ter­fi­nals by hit­ting a 3 with a sec­ond left. Auburn watched the end of that game.

That’s why three Tigers sur­rounded Nem­b­hard, and his shot came up well short and drew no foul call be­fore the buzzer.

Pearl wanted Bryce Brown to foul quickly, and the Auburn se­nior said it was a men­tal lapse on his part. Re­plays show Brown ap­peared to grab at Nem­b­hard’s left arm, but the guard said he felt he got the ball.

“Whether they fouled me or not, it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter at this point,” Nem­b­hard said.

Pearl said of­fi­cials didn’t call a foul whether Nem­b­hard was tied up cleanly or had some con­tact.

“We were for­tu­nate,” Pearl said.

Harper fin­ished with 20 points, 17 of those in the first half. Bryce Brown scored all 11 in the sec­ond half.

“I thought Jared Harper was amaz­ing,” Florida coach Mike White said. “I thought that we made a few de­fen­sive mis­takes, but we were pretty good de­fen­sively. They’re that good of­fen­sively.”

Hayes and Hud­son each had 16 points to lead Florida, which led 34-30 at half­time. Florida: The Ga­tors head home at least hav­ing made up for los­ing their fi­nal three games of the reg­u­lar sea­son with their 76-73 up­set of No. 9 LSU in the quar­ter­fi­nals. But they missed their first ap­pear­ance in the tour­na­ment fi­nal since 2014 and will have to wait for an­other chance to add to their four tour­na­ment ti­tles.

Auburn: The Tigers im­proved to 4-8 all-time in this tour­na­ment’s semi­fi­nals, and this is the fourth time they have reached the cham­pi­onship game, fol­low­ing 1984, 1985 and 2000.

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