2:00 PM ET, March 1, 2003
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) -- Matt Bonner could have taken the open 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down, but drove to the basket and drew the foul instead.Good call. Bonner made two free throws with 23 seconds left as No. 4 Florida survived a late rally and beat Auburn 73-70 Saturday. "I had a chance for a 3, but did not want to take the chance of missing and giving Auburn another chance,'' said Bonner, who was 8-for-13 from the field and had 23 points and eight rebounds. "So I just drove the lane.'' The Gators (24-4, 12-2 Southeastern Conference) set the school record for regular-season wins and have won six of seven. The Tigers (18-9, 7-7) wiped out most of a 14-point deficit over the final 6:28 using Florida's biggest weapon: the 3-pointer. They missed a nice opportunity to strengthen their case for an NCAA tournament bid, only because Gators coach Billy Donovan is not on the selection committee. "If there's 64 teams better than them, I'd be hard-pressed to believe that,'' he said. "They're as tough and as good as anybody we've played. "They should be in the NCAA Tournament.'' Marquis Daniels hit two free throws to cut it to 70-67 with 54 seconds left, the closest Auburn had come since trailing 22-20 25 minutes earlier. Bonner drove to the basket and was fouled by Kyle Davis after the Gators milked 31 seconds off the shot clock. "I had a wide-open 3, but I also had a lane to the hoop,'' Bonner said, noting that Donovan stresses being aggressive in those situations. He made the free throws with 23 seconds left and Daniels missed a 3 at the other end -- with Bonner collecting the rebound. He hit one of two free throws with 8.1 seconds left. Auburn's Lewis Monroe hit a 3-pointer -- Auburn's 10th -- at the buzzer for the final margin. The Tigers have lost seven of their last 10 and are in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament after a fast start. Coach Cliff Ellis felt the close call was a positive statement. "Florida's going to be a No. 1 seed, and it's a one-possession game,'' he said. "We just didn't have quite enough to pull it out. Our fight was certainly there.'' The Gators had assists on all but five of their 25 field goals and got plenty of help from their struggling star. Brett Nelson had 12 points and five assists. He was 3-for-5 from 3-point range for his first double-digit effort since a season-high 25 against LSU on Jan. 28. "That's great to see,'' Bonner said. "He gives us another weapon that's going to put a lot of pressure on the other teams.'' David Lee had 12 points for the Gators. Derrick Bird was 5-for-13 from 3-point range and led Auburn with 21 points and four assists. Marco Killingsworth added 14 points, including 12 in the second half to atone for a foolish foul in the first half. Daniels, the league's No. 2 scorer, finished with 13 points after getting only two in the first half largely defended by Justin Hamilton. He was held scoreless for a span of more than 15 minutes after getting four quick points to start the second half, but hit a 3-pointer to cap an 8-0 run that made it 63-57 with 2:43 left. Daniels credited Florida's zone defense with many of Auburn's problems. The Tigers attempted 26 3-pointers, nine more than normal. "When they went zone, that really played a big part in the game,'' Daniels said. "Every time they went zone, it got our offense standing still. Davis had six points, nine rebounds, five blocked shots and three steals for the Tigers. Florida, off to its best conference start, won 23 games in 1993-94 and 1999-2000. The Gators have won all six games against Western Division teams this season. Auburn couldn't stop Bonner inside or out in the first half -- even with an errant elbow. Killingsworth was called for an intentional foul after elbowing Bonner under Auburn's basket when the ball was already to midcourt. He hit both free throws and scored 14 points before halftime as the Gators hit six of 11 3-pointers and went up 34-26. They were only 5-for-14 inside the arc. "The running joke in our program is that I can't play well in the first half,'' Bonner said. "I was just getting the ball in scoring areas and making shots, like usual.'' The Gators were the highest ranked team to visit Beard-Eaves Coliseum since No. 1 Kentucky in 1996.
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