Auburn – Florida Meet in SEC Championship

Ken Cross

March 18, 2024 at 12:12 am.

NASHVILLE – Auburn dropped Mississippi State, 73-66, and then Florida used its transition game and athletic ability inside to outlast Texas A&M, 95-90. 

It’s a matchup of Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl against Florida’s Todd Golden, who was his former assistant when Pearl first came to the Tigers.

With the potential offensive characteristics of both offenses, this game should equate to many of the other SEC Tournament games this season that saw scores in the 80’s, 90’s, or venture over the century mark.

With this weekend, Texas A&M and Mississippi State should be NCAA Tournament participants which would raise the SEC’s number to the probability of eight.

Tigers Withstand Mississippi States physicality 

No. 12 Auburn had to use its athleticism, especially in the posts, to overcome a strong 3-game run from a physical and active Mississippi State squad.

“Our balance really paid off,” explained Pearl. “I thought Jaylin (Williams) did a tough job on (Cameron) Matthews in this game because he is a real factor. I thought our five-men to only give Tolu (Smith) three baskets, were really significant. We were able to kind of defend Mississippi State on the inside. That was a big factor.”

The Tigers allowed the Bulldogs to shoot only 41 percent and Mississippi State only found a a trio of three-point field goals. Auburn withstood the physicality of State on the glass as MSU was a (+8) while scoring 12 points off of 17 offensive rebounds.

“We had to just come out there and basically execute,” said the athletic and active Chad Baker-Mazzara. “Coach told us what it was going to be about. SEC Tournament, not many foul calls, so we knew it was going to be a war down there.”

Baker-Mazzara has risen into one of the most electric Auburn players on both ends of the floor. He finished with 15 points and hit a key three off the baseline with 1:58 o play as he gave Auburn a 66-60 lead.

He had earlier given Auburn a push maybe when it needed it most. The Bulldogs had cut the lead to 57-56 after Auburn had a 53-44 advantage with 9:55 remaining.

However, one of the crowning moments for the Tigers took place when Baker-Mazzara fed Dylan Cardwell for a dunk before Cardwell slammed a second one on the next possession. The 6-7 junior from Santo Domingo hit a 15-footer with 3:23 left to push Auburn’s lead back to 63-56.

“It was a rock fight because both teams were playing really, really physical,” said Pearl. “That’s Mississippi State’s MO. Our MO is playing hard all the time, but not quiet as physical.”

Bulldogs freshman Josh Hubbard once again had a solid game. He only had four points when he hit a three with 8:41 to play. He then scored 16 points in a row to help MSU foster a comeback to cut the Tigers lead to 68-64.

“They just denied me a lot,” said Hubbard. “We pretty much expected it though. I feel like we did a good job to get transition points in the first half the way we did. Kept the game going like we wanted to keep it.”


Gators’ Resiliency Puts Them in SEC Final 

After Texas A&M guard Wade Taylor hit a three off the right baseline, it capped an 11-0 Aggies run and they took their biggest lead of the game at 40-22.

Florida guard Denzel Aberdeen flexed potentially for the first time of the season as he scored 10 of his 20 points in the next five minutes before halftime to cut the Aggies’ lead to 48-42 at the break.

Aberdeen would be considered the ninth man in the Gators rotation and he worked extremely hard to put himself in a position to be able to come through for his team. He lead five Gators in double figures as Florida shot 49.1 percent from the field for the entire game.

“He’s one of the hardest workers I know,” said guard Chris Richard. “You never hear him complain about minutes or anything. He just stays the course.”

Aberdeen was consistent throughout the afternoon as he helped Richard and Walter Clayton, Jr., combine for nine threes. Aberdeen’s work was complementary to Pullin’s playmaking and Samuel’s work in the paint was fostered by the way Texas A&M had to change defensively to account for Aberdeen.

After Solomon Washington tied the game at 72-72 with 7:27 to play, Richard hit a three and Samuel blocked a shot and ran the floor, finishing with a layup in transition via Pullin. Aberdeen’s three capped what was the decisive 8-0 run that gave Florida an 80-72 advantage.

“He was close to dominating in the second half, just the way he was able to play in the paint physically,” explained Florida head coach Todd Golden. “He did a great job in passing. They trap a lot in the post. I think he is one of the better-passing bigs in America and composed.”

With 3:21 remaining, Clayton connected with his four-point play as he made a three off of the left baseline and nailed a free throw for an 86-75 advantage.

Texas A&M’s Wade Taylor led all scorers with 30 points as he, Tyrece Radford, and Manny Obaseki had their dribble drive games working once again and the Aggies were playing off that to form the big first-half lead.

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