NASHVILLE — In a must-win game in which no one wanted to say the words "must" or "win," Florida accomplished exactly what was necessary to keep its NCAA postseason hopes alive.
The Gators dominated inside the paint when possible, defended the 3-point line and generated enough perimeter offense to earn a 78-69 victory over Auburn on Thursday night in the first round of the SEC basketball tournament, ending a three-game losing streak that closed out the regular season.
It was the first time in three years the Gators have defeated a team from Alabama in the SEC tournament. Florida (21-11) plays Mississippi State, the SEC West No. 1 seed, at 7:30 tonight. The Gators defeated the Bulldogs 69-62 on Feb. 6 in Gainesville and are 7-0 against the West.
"I thought going into the game that a big factor for us and a huge key was going to be our ability to guard the 3-point line," coach Billy Donovan said. "I thought we did about as good a job as we could have guarding them from the 3-point line."
Florida held Auburn (15-17) to 16 percent from beyond the arc.
"One of the things we have to do is shoot the ball well from 3 and that didn't happen," Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said.
"I'm very proud of my team the way they battled. It was a hard-fought game, we just came up short."
The Gators led 40-31 at halftime, but they opened the second half shooting 0-for-7 while Auburn went on an 8-0 run. But after the Tigers cut the lead to 42-41 on a layup by Lucas Hargrove with 15:22 remaining, UF freshman guard Kenny Boynton hit three consecutive 3-pointers to kick off a 13-0 run that Auburn couldn't overcome.
"Auburn is a tough team, and we knew they weren't just going to lay down," said Florida forward Chandler Parsons, who had 21 points and six rebounds. "But we showed we're a tough team. We didn't hang our head."
The Gators scored 40 in the paint, utilizing a pick-and-roll play mostly through Parsons and junior forward Alex Tyus that stymied Auburn and led to a team-high 24 points for Tyus.
"The guys did a good job finding me," Tyus said. "That was the main key for us, getting easy baskets.
"I'm really excited to get the win. We're just looking really forward to Mississippi State."
With 9:38 remaining in the first half, the Gators led by 14. Florida outscored Auburn 16-6 inside the paint in the first 13 minutes.
Before the game, Lebo said the Tigers needed two things to give themselves a chance at a victory: production from center Brendon Knox in the post and solid 3-point shooting from senior guard Tay Waller. Knox had five points and four rebounds. Waller, who shot 57 percent from 3-point range in the final five games of the regular season, went 0-for-6 from the field, 0-for-5 from 3-point range.
"He was heartbroken after the game," Lebo said. "He's given us some great memories. Tonight just wasn't his night."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org