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Riley Kugel scores 22, Florida dominates No. 12 Auburn 81-65 to strengthen NCAA tourney resume

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — How Florida won was the most surprising part of its latest upset.

Riley Kugel scored 22 points, Walter Clayton Jr. added 20 and the Gators dominated No. 12 Auburn 81-65 on Saturday to put themselves in position to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years.

Florida (16-7, 6-4 Southeastern Conference) extended its home-winning streak against the slightly favored Tigers (19-5, 8-3) to 15 and picked up its second Quad 1 victory in two weeks. This one came in stunning fashion.

Florida controlled the game from the opening tip and — for a change — never let up. Coach Todd Golden’s team had lost three games this season (Wake Forest, Texas A&M and Kentucky) after leading at halftime and squandered huge leads before eking out wins against Georgia and Mississippi State late last month.

“To step on their neck and kind of put them in the ground, we needed that as a team," Clayton said. "Now we know we can do it and we’ve got to keep on doing it.”

Florida's most complete game of the season — the Gators led by as many as 29 points in the second half — should be enough to lift the team off the proverbial NCAA bubble for good.

“We're a lock, the biggest lock in the world after today,” Golden joked. "We just have to decide if we're wearing white home jerseys in the first round or putting those roadies on. In all seriousness, we're in a great spot right now.

“As quickly as it got good for us it can get bad if we don't take care of business. By no means are we content."

Zyon Pullin chipped in 19 points for the Gators, who shot 40% from the field and made 7 of 21 from 3-point range.

Florida scored the first nine points of the game and opened a 17-point lead midway through the first half thanks mostly to guard play. Clayton, Kugel and Pullin proved to be a handful for Auburn’s backcourt.

“Florida’s guard are really good, like really good, as good as anybody’s guards,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. "I don’t think they’re going to lose many of those matchups.”

The Tigers’ perceived advantage in the paint with Johni Broome never materialized. Broome, who leads Auburn in scoring with 16 points a game, finished with 12 points and seven boards. He had just five points with 10 to play and missed seven of eight free throws.

K.D. Johnson also scored 12 points for the Tigers. Auburn, which last won in Gainesville in 1996, missed 14 of 17 shots from behind the arc.

“What I'm paying the price for was my first two years at Tennessee I actually beat the two-time national champion Florida Gators three out of four times," said Pearl, who fell to 3-9 in Gainesville. “That doesn't get talked about, so I have to talk about it every now and then.”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Auburn could fall some in the next AP college basketball poll, but the Tigers also enjoyed an impressive home victory against rival and 16th-ranked Alabama earlier in the week.

BIG PICTURE

Auburn: Pearl said Florida's length gave his team fits inside and out. The Gators finished with 10 steals and six blocked shots.

“We didn’t’ play inside-out basketball," Pearl said. "We played inside-get-your-shot-blocked basketball.”

Florida: The Gators needed another Quad 1 win to bolster their NCAA resume. They won at Kentucky to end January and added another solid victory against the Tigers to give them a little more margin for error down the stretch.

“The prize on our head is huge," Pearl said. "A big win and a big number for Florida.”

HOMETOWN HERO

Former Florida star and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Anthony Richardson got a standing ovation while being introduced in the first half. Richardson, a Gainesville native, sat courtside with a friend and was shown on camera dancing the team’s mascot, Alberta.

UP NEXT

Auburn hosts South Carolina on Wednesday.

Florida hosts LSU on Tuesday.

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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll