TAMPA — Florida's NCAA Tournament fate no longer rests in its hands. Auburn took care of that in dramatic fashion Friday night.
The Tigers' Frankie Sullivan made one of his two free throws with 13.4 seconds remaining. Then Erving Walker's shot was partially blocked by Quantez Robertson as time expired to give Auburn a 61-58 victory in the quarterfinals of the SEC men's basketball tournament in front of 14,128 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
"I saw a couple of their 3-point shooters on one side," Robertson said.
"They set a quick ball screen. I was able to get back on the shooter, and I was able to get a hand on the ball."
Auburn (22-10), which had lost its past three SEC tournament games, plays Tennessee in the semifinals at 3:15 p.m. today. LSU and Mississippi State meet in the day's first game.
Florida (23-9), meanwhile, likely will be headed to the NIT for the second straight season.
By most accounts, Friday night's game was a play-in for the NCAA Tournament. Auburn entered unranked but having won eight of its past nine to finish second in the SEC West. Its RPI ranking had jumped 52 points from 116th on Feb. 4 to 64th entering the tournament.
Florida picked up its 23rd win against Arkansas in the tournament's first round and needed another victory to help push it from bubble team to the "in" column.
"We'll have to go back and wait," senior guard Walter Hodge said, referring to Sunday's NCAA selections.
After jumping out to an early lead and holding it for nearly 33 minutes, the Gators watched Auburn meticulously chip away at the lead with aggressive defense and physical play that stymied the Gators offense. The Tigers (22-10) eventually went ahead with 7:30 left.
And they never trailed again.
"We really struggled offensively," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "Their speed, quickness and strength made it difficult for our perimeter guys. Outside of Alex (Tyus) and Erving, we really couldn't score anything.
"Just the way they physically got after us and banged us, I thought that was a big part of the game."
Florida shot 36 percent from the field (22-of-61) and was 8-of-25 on 3-pointers. Auburn held standout guard Nick Calathes to seven points, his second-lowest total of the season, and Hodge to just eight. Auburn's bench outscored the Gators 25-14.
"They did a really good job attacking the passing lanes, and they did a good job (stopping us) with their athleticism," said Tyus, who had a game-high 21 points.
Walker added 14, although he had to be consoled after the blocked shot at the end.
"I told him that was not his fault and he has to keep his head up," Hodge said.
Florida led 29-28 at halftime, and Auburn tied the score for the first time at 39 when Lucas Hargrove hit one of two his free throws with 11:26 remaining. Then trailing 43-41, Auburn went on a 10-3 run to take a 51-46 lead with 6:19 remaining.
"I'm just really, really happy for these kids who have been through a lot and have had an unbelievable last month and a half," Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said.
Florida played after finishing its first-round game at about midnight.
"I thought our guys, considering the fact we got in so late (Thursday) night, did a pretty good job defensively," Donovan said. "But we really, really struggled offensively."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]