Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
Florida guard KeVaughn Allen, shown in an earlier photo, was the star Saturday night for the Gators.

Florida basketball: KeVaughn Allen and Gators bounce back in momentous win over No. 12 Auburn

Ryan Young

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida basketball coach Mike White had his longest conversation yet with KeVaughn Allen earlier this week, encouraging the enigmatic junior guard to be aggressive after a scoreless game in which he attempted only 3 shots.

White wasn’t sure how the message was received, as Allen never gives away much to anyone.

And after Allen missed his first 5 shots from the field Saturday night, one had to wonder if he would go quiet the rest of this game as well.

Far from it. Allen scored Florida’s final 9 points of the first half on three straight 3-pointers, including an incredible 3/4-court buzzer-beater. He then kept delivering in the big moments down the stretch and finished with 24 points to spark the Gators to a 72-66 win over SEC-leading No. 12 Auburn inside Exactech Arena at the O’Connell Center.

“He’s so capable of that. I wish you’d tell him that, and I’m going to tell him again and I wish everyone in this room would tell him that when you see him. If any of our students are watching this, when you see KeVaughn on campus Monday, tell him to shoot the basketball,” White said afterward. 

The game maintained its suspense until the end as the teams swapped the lead back and forth in the final minutes. After Allen’s clutch moments down the stretch kept the Gators in position, Jalen Hudson ultimately took a perfect pass in the paint from Chris Chiozza for a layup and free throw to give Florida a 3-point lead with 26.8 seconds left on the clock.

And that stood as the decisive score in a potentially pivotal game for the previously reeling Gators.

With the win, Florida (18-11, 9-7 SEC) snapped a three-game losing streak and had lost six of its previous eight conference games overall, badly needing a win to boost its NCAA tournament profile down in the final weeks of the regular-season.

Perhaps winning this one like the Gators did Saturday night will provide the kickstart needed for a team that was once ranked as high as No. 5 in the country earlier this season.

Especially if it means Allen, a preseason first-team All-SEC pick, has his confidence back.

After missing those first five shots, he connected on his next six and 8 of his final 10 overall. His 24 points marked his second-highest scoring output of the season while his 6 3s matched a season high, providing a reminder of his ever-present potential.

“I was really proud that he remained aggressive,” White said. “He had a meeting with a couple of his teammates that he’s really close with that encouraged him and challenged him at the same time because when he’s aggressive other guys gain confidence, whether they’re going in or not. He’s an electric scorer, and he’s one of a few guys that can start 0 for 5 and hit his next 6.”

Said Hudson, who scored 19 points while having his own big night:  “That’s so important — not only for him, for us. To see him do that, we feel confident. We want him to keep being aggressive. He’s an all-league guy. We just want to keep him aggressive, keep him shooting.”

Allen did that Saturday night, and it seemed like he was involved in just about every big moment for the Gators.

It was a tied game late in the first half before he knocked down those three straight 3s, and his highlight-reel heave sent Florida into halftime up 33-24.

“I was surprised that it went in because from the angle that I was at it didn’t look like it was about to go in at all. But it looked like it curved at the last second,” Allen said in his typical soft spoken manner. “The play was just to get it in and get a shot up, and luckily I got it and threw it up and it went in.”

Said White: “We needed that one, didn’t we? Wow. Huge. It was a big momentum shot for us. The guys were fired up going into the locker room and he made something out of nothing.”

The Gators would go up by as many as 14 points early in the second half.

But the Tigers (24-5, 12-4) battled all the way back to take the lead on a 3 from Mustapha Heron with 3:55 remaining. Hudson answered right back with a 3 for the Gators, and Jared Harper scored a layup for Auburn to tie it at 59-59.

A layup and free throw from Desean Murray later gave the Tigers a 62-60 lead with 2:44 to go, but Allen was ready to seize the moment again. And again.

He swished a 3 from the left corner to put the hosts up 63-62, and he wasn’t finished.

Heron hit two free throws with 1:58 to go, as Auburn claimed a 64-63 lead, but Allen answered right back with a 3 from the other corner for a 66-64 Gators advantage.

After Hudson blocked a shot and Chiozza grabbed the loose ball, he was fouled and sent to the line with 51.8 second left. He missed both free throws, but Kevarrius Hayes appeared to save the ball out of bounds.

The refs instead ruled Hayes was out of bounds. Even after a review, the call was upheld to the ire of the crowd and Auburn soon got to the line at the other end for a 1 and 1 with 41.9 seconds to play.

Harper made both to tie it at 66-66, but Florida’s veterans came through on the other end with Chiozza’s sweet feed to Hudson for the layup and ensuing free throw to make it 69-66 with 26.8 on the clock.

“Coach called this play where I basically come up and try to screen Chris Chiozza’s guy and pop, and most likely try to get a 3 ball off. But they were in the gap so heavy they didn’t want me to even touch the ball or get a 3 so I was able to do something to get to the basket,” Hudson recalled of the key moment. “Chris Chiozza, leading the Gators in assists and everything else, so he was able to find me and I was able to put it in and the guy fouled me because he was late. Just a big play. It was a better pass than a layup.”

Egor Koulechov helped seal it, hitting one of two free throws with 15.3 left after an Auburn miss, and Allen added two of his own to close out the win.

Including his scoreless outing Wednesday night at Tennessee, Allen had scored 7 or less points in four of the past five games and came in averaging a career-low 10.8 points per game.

Hayes and forward Keith Stone were the players who talked to him this week, along with White.

Allen was asked after the game if White has had that same conversation with him in the past.

“Yeah, he has,” Allen said.

“I was pretty confident tonight. I hit a couple good shots tonight and it just got me going,” he said. “… It was big. I’ve just got to continue to stay aggressive and just continue to do what I did tonight.”

In addition to Allen and Hudson, Chiozza delivered for Florida with 8 points, 12 assists (with 2 turnovers) and 5 rebounds, and redshirt freshman forward Dontay Bassett scored a career-high 12 points with 6 rebounds.

While Florida’s season has been in a tailspin of late, the Gators nonetheless have a resume boosted by marquee wins and they added another Saturday night.

One step at a time, White said.

“I hope it makes us feel good for about an hour,” he said. “We play in Tuscaloosa Tuesday night [against an Alabama] team that came in here and just beat us up. It wasn’t even a game in the second half. This current Gator team has not handled success very well. Obviously, we’ve been pretty inconsistent. I feel like generally speaking we’re more consistent now with effort than we were in October for sure, and November. We’ve got to move on quickly. Hopefully we gain a little bit of confidence.”

NOTES: White lauded the energy supplied by the crowd, which was noticeably energized from the start.

Florida forced 13 first-half turnovers from Auburn, including 7 steals, and White attributed that partly to the energy supplied by the fans.

“Amazing. … It was on fire. It was a great college basketball environment, arguably the best in here this year,” White said. “And it’s a factor. It’s a factor in us getting stops, and it’s a factor in KeVaughn feeling pretty good about it even though he’s missed a couple or a few or what have you. … They were just rocking. It was electric. It was a fun environment.”

Florida basketball-Florida Gators-Auburn basketball-box score-stats-recap