AUBURN, Ala. — Grit. Resolve. Competitive spirit. The intangibles long sought this season by Kentucky Coach John Calipari showed themselves in a 75-53 victory at Auburn on Saturday night.
Despite Auburn's first sellout crowd of the season, which fueled a brightly-observed "orange out," and a pre-game jersey retirement ceremony to further stoke the atmosphere, Kentucky persevered. No, make that Kentucky embarrassed Auburn.
"You can't have losses like that," Auburn's senior leader, Frankie Sullivan, said. "At home. Great crowd. It's embarrassing."
It was also close enough to exhilarating for a Kentucky team heretofore learning how to compete.
"We're trying to get our guys to buy in," Calipari said, "and this was a good step for us."
A few minutes after he used understatement to express this positive step, Calipari tried a bit of historical perspective to perhaps make sure this game would be appreciated.
"Wins and losses, OK," he said. "But these guys will be defined by how much effort and how much fight (and) how much competitive spirit they had."
That's how fans of UK and basketball measure players and teams, Calipari said. "The winning and losing will take care of itself."
Kentucky had reasons to falter. Freshman 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, who on Thursday underwent what UK called a "minor procedure" on his left knee, did not make the trip. "Willie stayed home so he could get a double dose of treatment so we can get him back sooner," Calipari tweeted earlier in the day.
UK's other big man, Nerlens Noel, got into foul trouble.
Yet Kentucky, which improved to 12-5 overall and 3-1 in the Southeastern Conference, rose to the occasion.
Auburn, which suffered its most lopsided home loss in Tony Barbee's tenure as coach, surrendered.
"Scared," Sullivan said of his team's performance. "We just played scared. Point-blank and simple. That's all it was."
Although the teams came into the game with identical rebounding stats in the Southeastern Conference (each outboarded 35.7-33.7 in the first three league games), Kentucky dominated Auburn on the boards 43-30.
Kyle Wiltjer led UK with 17 points. That equaled his SEC high posted last week against Tennessee.
Archie Goodwin, Ryan Harrow and Alex Poythress each added 12 points. Even with the fouls, Noel again flirted with a triple-double. He finished with 10 points, nine rebounds and seven blocks.
Auburn, which fell to 8-9 and 2-2, got 14 points from center Rob Chubb and 12 from Sullivan.
Noel picked up his second foul and went to the bench with 8:27 left in the first half. UK led 10-9. Given Noel's four points, three rebounds and three blocks before the first television timeout, he appeared headed for a big night.
For the rest of the half, the Cats held serve and then some, outscoring Auburn 20-16.
Credit Wiltjer, UK grit and Auburn's poor shooting. The Tigers made only five of their first 25 shots, and missed all 11 of the attempts from three-point range in the first half.
For the game, Auburn missed all 15 of its three-point shots.
"Of the 15 threes, maybe one was kind of guarded," Barbee said. "Kind of guarded. The other 14 (were) wide open. Nobody near you."
UK's intention to compete was never more apparent than midway through the first half when Goodwin took off on one of his awkward-looking fast-break dashes.
When Goodwin scored while being fouled, he looked at the students behind the basket and shot them a derisive salute.
With the absence of Cauley-Stein and Noel, Jarrod Polson filled the need for new heroes. He somehow rose above the traffic and tipped in Wiltjer's miss with 4:47 left in the half. That gave the point guard from Nicholasville more offensive rebounds at that juncture than Poythress, Noel and Wiltjer.
But no one could complain about Wiltjer. He exploited Auburn's zone by hitting shots from the elbow area. His three-pointer with 3:08 left marked the only make from beyond the arc in the teams' 1-for-21 three-point shooting half.
Wiltjer also threw passes from the elbow that netted Poythress two dunks.
Although Noel picked up his third foul on a charge 13 seconds into the second half, Kentucky expanded its lead. The Cats made 16 of their first 24 shots of the second half. That buried Auburn under a 67-45 deficit with 6:22 left.
Polson accounted for the 15th basket by driving down a wide-open lane for a layup. The crowd ooohed at his parting of the shallowing orange sea.
Barbee acknowledged UK's gritty resolve while lamenting his own team's lack of willpower.
"They played tough ... and they fed off our lack of confidence," he said. "You can give a team confidence and more aggression. As we continued to miss shots, they fed off it."
Kentucky at Alabama
When: 9 p.m. TV: ESPN
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com