GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan hadn't planned on having center Patric Young for its game against Auburn because of a flareup of the tendinitis in the his knees. However, when pregame warmups were finished, Young told his coach he could play.
That decision turned out to be crucial in saving the Gators' school-record 18-game winning streak.
Young hit a pair of free throws with 19 seconds remaining to break a tie and added another after Auburn committed a crucial turnover to seal second-ranked Florida's 71-66 victory at the O'Connell Center.
"I've been practicing situations, like the opportunity to go to the Final Four with free throws as the game-winner," Young said about clutch late-game performance. "I was just telling myself, 'Be great. Strive to be great right now.'
"I've been working on my free throws and I just went up there and swished them like it was nothing," he said.
It wasn't the Gators' best effort but it may be good enough to put them atop The Associated Press college basketball poll for the first time since the 2006-07 season after No. 1 Syracuse's overtime loss to Boston College on Wednesday night. Provided, of course, the Gators beat host Ole Miss (16-10, 7-6) on Saturday.
"One of the things I talk to our guys about is that with our rankings and being undefeated in the league we get everyone's best shot," Donovan said. "But I like to look at it the other way. Are we going to give our best shot? I don't think that we did that today."
Young never mentioned he had chronic tendinitis in his knees. Donovan revealed that Young was hurting in his postgame news conference.
"He didn't warm up and he told me before the game that he could play," Donovan said. "His knees are ailing. I thought he was phenomenal in the second half. He played great. Where he'll be at tomorrow we'll probably have a better idea but him playing or how much we could play him today was in doubt."
Young didn't played well in the first half, missing his only shot from the field and grabbing just one rebound in 14 minutes. He wasn't the only one playing sluggishly, though. The Gators (24-2, 13-0 SEC) trailed 38-30 at the break, which the was the team's largest halftime deficit of the season.
"We definitely came out a little flat," said senior forward Casey Prather, who scored 16 points and had nine rebounds. "We weren't doing the things that we needed to do and should have done to win the game. I'm just glad we had a chance in the second half to continue to play basketball."
Young certainly responded in the second half. He scored all 17 of his points and grabbed six of his seven rebounds in the final 20 minutes. He hit five of his six shots in the second half and the 17 points tied a season high.
Florida had taken a 66-65 lead on Michael Frazier's 3-pointer with 40.5 seconds to play, but the Tigers tied it on a free throw by Chris Denson with 20 seconds remaining. Young grabbed the rebound on the missed foul shot and was immediately fouled.
Young, a 55.9 percent career free throw shooter, hit the two free throws to give the Gators the lead for good and ensure they'd extend their home winning streak to 31 consecutive games.
Auburn (12-12, 4-9) nearly pulled off the upset because of its 3-point shooting. The Tigers made 10 of 19 3-point shots. Tahj Shamsid-Deen led the Tigers with 17 points and made 5 of 8 3-point shots.
Auburn, though, made a costly mistake in the final seconds. After Young's free throws put the Gators up 68-66, Allen Payne's inbounds pass to K.T. Harrell bounced out of bounds. Harrell had glanced up-court and never saw the ball and it ricocheted off his arm and into the Florida bench.