By Scott Scroggins
AUBURN, Ala. - The saying "all's well that ends well" describes Auburn's women's basketball's SEC opener vs. Florida perfectly. But it didn't start that way for the Tigers. Auburn opened the game by missing its first 17 shots and fell behind 18-2.
But from that point on, Auburn (10-3, 1-0 SEC) played arguably its best basketball of the season, outscoring the Gators 82-37 the rest of the way for an 84-55 victory at Auburn Arena Sunday afternoon. The 16-point comeback was the Tigers' largest since coming back from 17 points down to defeat Tennessee last season.
"It was truly incredible," Auburn head coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said. "I told them (before) the game started in the locker room, 'Basketball is a game of runs, and Florida is a team that shoots the 3. They're going to make some 3s. They're going to make a run. But what we can't do is panic.' And I thought our girls did a great job of not panicking, stayed within the offensive plan, the defensive plan, and then we slowly got ourselves back into the game."
Auburn's stifling defense leads comeback
It's no secret Auburn leans on its defense to spark its offense, and it was no different in Sunday's win over Florida. The Tigers forced 28 turnovers and turned those into 33 points. The Tigers have now forced 20 or more turnovers in all 13 games this season and at least 25 seven times, including the last four games.
"We really don't want to do it," Williams-Flournoy said of making another big comeback. "That's not in the game plan, but to know that I think they understand that if we just get our defense and pressure, pressure, pressure like we can, our defense will always get us back in the game." On the other end of the floor, Auburn took extreme care of the basketball, tying a school record with only five turnovers.
Because of the added possessions from forcing 23 more turnovers than they committed and out-rebounding Florida 24-12 on the offensive end, the Tigers attempted 38 more shots than the Gators.
Auburn also held the SEC's top 3-point shooting team (Florida averaged 9.8 made 3s per game entering the game) to just 6-of-20 from long range.
"They had been averaging 10 and they have been taking about 30," Williams-Flournoy said, "and we said we couldn't ... let them get the shots off. If we didn't let them get them off, they couldn't make them."
Tigers dominate in the fourth quarter
The game was still close entering the fourth quarter as Auburn held a slim 54-51 lead, but the Tigers made sure it didn't stay that way for long. Auburn scored the first nine points of the quarter and outscored Florida 30-4 over the final 10 minutes to secure the victory. The Tigers held the Gators without a field goal over the final 8:19 of the game.
The 30 fourth-quarter points for the Tigers matched a school record for the most points scored in a quarter in an SEC game.
"We knew they were getting tired," Williams-Flournoy said about Florida in the fourth quarter. "We told our girls that the fourth quarter would be key. If we could keep pressuring, keep pressuring and keep pressuring that their legs would get tired, and we could really get after them."
The 29-point margin of victory is Auburn's largest in an SEC game since defeating Alabama 81-40 on Feb. 23, 2012. The win extends Auburn's winning streak to seven, which is the Tigers' longest winning streak since winning nine straight from Nov. 24, 2012-Jan. 3, 2013.
Janiah McKay helps Tigers defeat her hometown team
For junior Janiah McKay, Sunday's game against Florida meant just a little bit more.
"Any time we get the chance to play Florida, I get so excited because being from Gainesville, it's just a little different," McKay said.
The first half didn't go as McKay would have hoped as she missed nine of her 10 shots and scored just six points before intermission. But after some encouragement from her head coach in the locker room at halftime, she responded like the player Auburn fans have come to know.
"Well, the Floridian from Gainesville, Florida, had to calm down," Williams-Flournoy said of McKay, "and so I talked to her at halftime and just told her, 'Look, I know we're playing Florida. You're shooting 1-for-10 right now. (You've) been hyped up since this morning. Just calm down and relax.' And I thought she came back in the second half and did a great job."
McKay scored 19 points in the second half on 8-of-11 shooting and finished with a game-high 25 points, her second game with at least 25 points and her fourth 20-point game this season.
Auburn will look to begin 2018 the same way it ended 2017 when it travels to seventh-ranked Tennessee Thursday for a 6 p.m. CT contest.