GAINESVILLE — Florida shooting guard Riley Kugel was all smiles while the Gators were all business.
The combination, along with a previously absent dose of killer instinct, spearheaded a resounding 81-65 home win over No. 12 Auburn.
Coach Todd Golden’s team delivered its best performance of the season at the expense of his former boss, Bruce Pearl. As the final minute ticked away, UF’s 38-year-old coach strode the sideline raising his arms to excite a sellout crowd of 10,808 at the O’Connell Center.
“Start to finish, our best effort of the year,” Golden said. “Our guys did a great job, and coming out being aggressive early and just an incredible crowd.”
After the loss, Pearl could only applaud his former player from the 2009 World Maccabiah Games and assistant in 2014-16 at Auburn.
“I love Todd. I’m so proud of him,” Pearl said. “He’s one of the best young coaches in college basketball. I knew that.”
Pearl’s Tigers entered Saturday looking like the SEC’s best team and Final Four material. But the Gators pounced and never let up.
Along the way, UF (16-7, 6-3 SEC) avoided a seemingly inevitable letdown with the game in the balance.
“That’s something we needed as a team,” shooting guard Walter Clayton Jr. said. “Obviously we know what we’re capable of. We kept on getting out to those big leads and we would kind of just let up. So the mentality of the team was to step on their neck and put them in the ground.
“Now we know we can do it and we gotta keep on doing it.”
Blowing double-digit leads had been a disturbing trend with a team possessing NCAA Tournament talent and depth yet lacking the ability to put away opponents. UF squandered halftime leads in losses to Kentucky and Texas A&M and turned one-sided performances against Georgia and Mississippi into nail-biters.
But Auburn (19-5, 8-3) fell behind early and never had a chance.
“I didn’t expect it to get away as quickly as it did,” Pearl said.
The Tiger trailed 9-2 at the first TV timeout and 26-9 with 9:11 to go in the first half. Pearl’s squad never cut the lead to single digits and trailed by as many as 29 points after two free throws by Clayton.
Two possessions earlier, Kugel completed a 4-point play after Auburn’s Adam Holloway fouled him as he made a 3-pointer.
“It came off the fingertip nice. It felt great,” Kugel said. “I knew it was cash.”
Coming off the bench in the role of Gators sixth man, Kugel finished with a team-leading 22 points in 29 minutes. More important, he played with a carefree and upbeat attitude rarely seen during an inexplicably sporadic and sullen season for the sophomore former standout at Orlando’s Dr. Phillips.
“He’s done a really good job of getting comfortable with this role that he’s in, being our sixth starter or whatever you want to call it,” Golden said. “He was feeling it a little bit, and when he does that, I want him to be really aggressive trying to score. Those are daggers; those are big-time shots in games like this.
“You could tell he was playing with a lot of freedom, a lot of joy. When he does that, he’s one of the best players out there.”
Kugel said the combination of perspective and Starbucks were key.
“I was just keeping my head up. Don’t dwell on anything. Keep pushing,” he said. “I know my teammates got me and I got them. And I had a caramel frappuccino this morning, so …”
Clayton chipped in 20 points plus 6 rebounds and did not commit turnover as the Gators had just 6 individual turnovers despite the Tigers’ trademark aggressiveness. Point guard Zyon Pullin added 19 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 turnover.
“They took care of the ball,” Pearl said. “What we were doing defensively did not disrupt them. Florida’s guards are really good, like really good.”
Little went right for the Tigers, particularly during a miserable first half when they shot 32.3%, including just 8.3% from 3-point range (1 of 13). The Gators forced 15 turnovers while finishing with 10 steals and 6 blocked shots, including 4 from 7-foot-1 sophomore Micah Handlogten, who also had 9 rebounds.
“That’s something we’re going to need to be able to rely on — our defense,” Pullin said.
Auburn fell into such a deep hole that UF was able to cruise to victory even when failing to convert its final 14 field-goal attempts. The result was a key Quadrant 1 win — UF is now 2-7 in such games — and a boost to the Gators’ NCAA Tournament resumé with Tuesday’s visit from LSU ahead.
“We’re a lock, the biggest lock in the world after today,” Golden quipped. “But in all seriousness, we’re in a great spot right now. But just as as quickly as it got good for us, it can get bad if we don’t take care of business. By no means are we content.
“We got a lot of work to do.”
Edgar Thompson can be reached at email@example.com