AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Billy Donovan cautioned his Florida Gators before the game not to assume Casey Prather would instantly return to form after a two-game layoff.
Prather scored 16 of his 21 points in the first half in his comeback from a badly bruised right knee and helped No. 7 Florida survive a scare from Auburn in a 68-61 victory on Saturday. Donovan’s warning proved unnecessary.
"That rule went out the window after the first half, when he had 16," the coach said. "He was clearly going to play a lot more since he played so well.
"I’m not so sure if he’s hurt again this game, that this is a game we could pull out."
Prather made eight of 10 shots for the Gators (15-2, 4-0 Southeastern Conference), who have won nine straight games and eight in a row at Auburn (8-7, 0-4).
Donovan said Prather looked just OK in practice Thursday with no contact, but fared better the day before the game.
"He was like, `When you come back to practice, are you going to baby it or are you going to play?’" Prather said. "I said I was going to play."
Tahj Shamsid-Deen hit a jump shot with 1:59 left to cut Florida’s lead to 62-61, but Scottie Wilbekin answered with a fadeaway jumper.
"We didn’t really have anything going on that possession," Wilbeken said. "My first drive, I didn’t have anything so I tried to give it to Casey Prather coming around behind me. His man denied him, so I had to make another move and I just made it."
Wilbekin, who scored 16 points, made two of four free throws over the final 48 seconds.
Patric Young blocked KT Harrell’s attempt to bring Auburn to within two points in between those trips to the line.
Kasey Hill made two late free throws for the final margin.
Young scored 13 for Florida, which outrebounded Auburn 31-23.
Chris Denson, the SEC’s leading scorer, had 15 of his 21 points in the second half to help keep the Tigers close. Harrell added 18 points and made 4 of 7 3-pointers. Allen Payne finished with 11 points.
"They made the plays down the stretch and we didn’t," Auburn coach Tony Barbee said.
Auburn has lost its first four SEC games by a combined 23 points. The Tigers have dropped their last 14 against league teams overall.
The Gators, who lost a 13-point lead in the first half, made 21 of 39 shots (53.8 percent).
Florida made 23 of 33 free throws while Auburn was 14 of 22. The Tigers’ point guards, Shamsid-Deen and Malcolm Canada, both fouled out.
Prather got right into his offensive rhythm after the layoff. He came in with 16:58 remaining, hit two quick jump shots and made his first five attempts, including a fast-break dunk off a nice bounce pass from Hill.
The Gators reeled off a 14-1 run for a 23-10 lead while the Tigers missed their first 10 attempts from inside the 3-point line. Walk-on Alex Thompson finally scored on a putback 13 minutes into the game for Auburn’s first basket since making a third consecutive 3-pointer with 14:28 left in the half.
Auburn hit all five of its 3-point attempts in the first half and finished 7 of 13.
Despite Prather’s surge, the Gators barely led at halftime. Wilbekin made two free throws with 3 seconds left to give Florida a 33-32 halftime lead.
Auburn had scored 14 consecutive points to briefly take the lead.
"Florida has the best defense I have ever seen," said Denson, adding that the Gators altered a number of shots. "I was the one in the first half that missed a lot of layups, but I think it was a little bit of nerves. Playing the No. 7 team in the country, and I was just anxious. We got the nerves out and then started getting in the grooves offensively."
Florida pushed the lead as high as 48-40 in the first seven minutes after the half, but couldn’t pull away.
Auburn announced before tipoff that reserve guard Chris Griffin has left school and is transferring. Griffin averaged 5.7 points in seven games as a junior before he was indefinitely suspended for violating school policy on Jan. 11.