Dakota Sumpter/Auburn Athletics
Auburn small forward Mustapha Heron came back from illness to lead the Tigers against Florida.

Instant analysis: No. 12 Auburn basketball falls short of SEC-clinching comeback win vs. Florida

Auburn basketball tried to pull off a prototypical win Saturday night at Florida. The Tigers turned the ball over a lot early and struggled with their 3-point defense, but they rallied after halftime.

The comeback attempt fell short, though, as Auburn led just briefly in a wild 72-66 loss at Florida. The win could’ve clinched at least a share of the SEC regular-season title, but Bruce Pearl’s Tigers will have to go to the final week of the schedule in order get their chance at a banner.

Mustapha Heron returned from a 1-game absence due to a stomach virus and led the way for the Tigers, scoring 22 points. But he didn’t get much help from backcourt stars Jared Harper and Bryce Brown, who were off their usual offensive games in the loss.

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Auburn has now lost 11 straight against Florida and a dozen in a row in Gainesville. Florida’s Kevaughn Allen, who had his own 9-0 run with a long-range heave to end the first half, hurt Auburn with 22 points on a stunning 6 of 10 from deep. Florida hit several clutch shots late in a thrilling final few minutes to hold onto the win.

Here are the three key takeaways from Auburn basketball’s tough trip to the Sunshine State.

Heron’s heroics not enough

Heron missed several days of action with a stomach virus that sapped his energy. He didn’t seem to have any lingering effects in Gainesville, though. Heron spearheaded the Auburn offense, as he was the only player who seemed to get a consistent shot against Florida’s defense.

He kept it going with 8 quick second-half points, including a pair of 3-pointers. But the rest of Auburn’s offense wasn’t able to keep up with him, save for Okeke. Brown and Harper combined to shoot just 5 for 18 from the field.

Heron finished with just three missed shots, which made for one of his most efficient games of the season. Unfortunately for him, Auburn couldn’t give him much support against a tough half-court defense.

Slow start against the wrong team

Auburn overcame several big deficits to earn wins in SEC play earlier this season. With Auburn missing a lot of shots and Florida looking much better than its recent performances in the first half, this game had the feel of the Tigers’ comebacks over Mississippi State and Ole Miss.

But Florida isn’t one of the Magnolia State schools. The Gators have a strong, yet inconsistent resume with some big-time wins over strong programs. Florida’s defense has been solid for most of the season, and its offensive balance can throw off the best of teams.

Auburn’s turnover-heavy first half and cold shooting nights from Harper and Brown were too much to overcome against a tournament team such as Florida. The Tigers need to lock down their own half-court defense and ball security in order to raise a banner.

Tough finish, but still in the driver’s seat

Auburn basketball will kick itself after missing out on a winnable game in Gainesville on Saturday night. In order to clinch an SEC title, it’ll have to beat either a hot Arkansas team or a South Carolina team that it lost two just a little more than a week ago.

One win will get Auburn its first SEC title since 1999 and only the third in school history. It will also clinch the No. 1 seed at the SEC Tournament in St. Louis. With both, or get a win with a Tennessee loss mixed in there, and the Tigers will have an outright title.

On an average night for Auburn basketball, it has enough firepower to get past Florida and its inconsistent offense. It’ll have to find that again in either Fayetteville or back home in Auburn for a shot at history.