By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. -- An Auburn basketball team that almost beat Florida earlier this season pushed the No. 2 Gators to the limit again before falling in the closing seconds Wednesday night.
Florida, down much of the game, took the lead for good with 20 seconds remaining to beat Auburn 71-66 in the O'Connell Center in Gainesville for its 30th consecutive home win.
"I'm proud of the guys, but I'm also disappointed for them in the same breath because I thought our guys deserved to win," said coach Tony Barbee on the Auburn radio network.
Auburn has come as close as most anyone to beating Florida, now twice. Auburn was within a point of Florida with less than two minutes to play before falling on Jan. 17. The Tigers almost finished the job Wednesday night thanks to the play of freshman point guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen, who scored a team-high 17.
"You've got to give Florida credit. That's what they are," Barbee said. "They're a championship team. They don't beat themselves. We beat ourselves in those waning moments. They didn't beat themselves."
Florida improved to 24-2 overall and 13-0 in the SEC and left with its home winning streak intact. Auburn almost ruined it all. The Tigers had won four of their previous six games before Wednesday and fell to 12-12 overall and 4-9 in the SEC.
Florida coach Billy Donovan said Auburn played "fearlessly" and "outplayed us."
"We did not do a good job defensively," Donovan said. "I give Auburn credit because they really shot the ball well."
Auburn's last lead came at 65-63 with 2:06 remaining. Florida would take the lead, but the Auburn was always close enough to tie, which it did, until a missed shot, a missed free throw, a foul and then a turnover allowed Florida to take and then build the lead in the final seconds.
Barbee said those mistakes didn't decide it.
"It was our inability to go get back 12 offensive rebounds that cost us the game," he said.
Shamsid-Deen stepped up to lead the Tigers, marking the first time that neither SEC-leader Chris Denson nor KT Harrell led Auburn in scoring this season.
"He doesn't care who it is or where it is," Barbee said of Shamsid-Deen's ability to play big in a big-time game.
Denson scored 15 and Harrell added 14.
"I thought Chris and KT did a really good job because of the attention that they draw, making everybody else better," Barbee said.
Now, Auburn heads back to play Vanderbilt at 5 p.m. Saturday in Auburn Arena. Barbee said the Tigers have to bounce back from Wednesday's tough loss.
"This game shows you how close we're getting, and to use it to go even further," he said. "Or, we can use it as a crutch and fold a little bit and take a step back."
Barbee was quick with an answer when he was posed with the possibility that Auburn can win the rest of its games if it plays like it did against Florida.
"There's no question," he said.
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine