NCAA Men's Basketball

No. 2 Auburn continues SEC title quest at Florida

With his club on the brink of its fourth Southeastern Conference title, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl is looking for his group to finish up strong in its five-game run to end the regular season.

The first matchup of that quintet takes place Saturday afternoon, as the No. 2 Tigers face the Florida Gators in Gainesville, Fla.

At home on Jan. 8, Auburn (24-2, 12-1) beat the Gators (16-10, 6-7) 85-73 behind 23 points from K.D. Johnson, but the play of star forward Jabari Smith has been the talk this week among the Tigers and their opposition.

After muddling through Wednesday's 94-80 home win over Vanderbilt, Pearl heaped praise on the showing of Smith, who tallied a career-high 31 points and made 7 of 10 from deep.

"Jabari was spectacular," said Pearl, whose 2018 Tigers shared the regular-season conference title with Tennessee. "You could see what an amazing jump shooter he is. He got them in rhythm and he was open. It was nice to see us finally make shots."

Almost assuredly a one-and-done freshman headed for the NBA, the 6-foot-10 Fayetteville, Ga., native also managed four rebounds and three assists in his 28 minutes.

Smith's marksmanship impressed Vanderbilt coach Jerry Stackhouse, an 18-year NBA veteran and two-time All-Star.

"He's such a good catch-and-shoot player," the third-year Commodores bench boss said. "He's as good as advertised. There's no doubt he'll be one of the first two or three picks in the draft this year, and he really stepped up and showed why."

Smith tops Auburn with 15.8 points per game, while Johnson and Wendell Green Jr. each net 12.7. Seven-footer Walker Kessler produces 12 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.7 blocks.

With a flimsy 1-6 mark against Quad 1 competition and a few bad losses, the Gators were the fourth team in the First Four Out category in ESPN's 2022 NCAA Tournament Bracketology -- before losing at Texas A&M Tuesday night.

However, they have opportunities at hand, and beating any one of Auburn, No. 23 Arkansas or No. 4 Kentucky -- all remaining home games on their schedule -- and winning a game or two in the SEC Tournament could go a long way toward participating in March Madness instead of the NIT.

In the first three games of February, coach Mike White's Gators had performed well late in games and clinched wins -- making late free throws against Ole Miss and Missouri, then holding off a late run by rival Georgia.

But they were not able to do that in College Station, Texas, in a matchup they needed to win just as much as the Aggies, who were mired in an eight-game losing streak.

With Florida defending a 55-53 lead in the final minute, Phlandrous Fleming Jr. fouled the Aggies' Wade Taylor IV from behind the arc with 19 seconds left.

Taylor sank all three free throws, and Fleming missed a jumper with three seconds left as the Gators dropped their second straight game.

"This was a tough one for our guys. Disheartening. That was as somber a locker room as I've been in for a while," said White, whose club was drubbed 78-57 at Kentucky last Saturday.

Florida has not missed the NCAA Tournament since White's first season in 2016.

--Field Level Media

Updated February 17, 2022