The prettiest play in Kentucky's 72-62 victory over Auburn on Saturday was easy to spot. It was an isle of beauty in a turbulent sea of fouls (including a variety of flagrant technicals) and sweat-soaked grit.
As he moved left to right across the lane, Alex Poythress threw a behind-the-back pass — almost a touch-pass in its immediacy — to Willie Cauley-Stein.
"I was not ready for that," Cauley-Stein said. "I thought he was losing the ball. When he came around (the back), I thought he muffed it. I thought, 'Oh, no.'
"Then it was a sharp pass. 'Oh, OK.'"
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Cauley-Stein, who stood just to the left of the basket, banked in the ball while being fouled. The crowd — announced as 24,253 — roared.
"It was beautiful," Cauley-Stein said of this taste of pudding amid a dinner of basketball castor oil (probably good for Kentucky, but yeeck!)
Kentucky had to grind to its fifth straight victory, which marked its longest winning streak of the season. The Cats, 17-6 overall and 8-2 in the Southeastern Conference, did not take a double-digit lead until midway through the second half. But unlike the game the teams played at Auburn last month, there was no breakaway run in this battle of mentor (John Calipari) and protégé (Tony Barbee) from the school of will-to-win determination.
Barbee, whose edgy post-game news conference lasted two minutes and five seconds, noted his team's resolve.
"I'm proud of the guys, the way they competed," he said. "That's the only way we — as a team — are going to survive and give ourselves a chance."
One man's competitive spirit thwarted another's sense of let-the-best-team-win justice.
"We responded real well," Cauley-Stein said of the game's physical, at times chippy, nature. "They responded real cheap."
Cauley-Stein defined "cheap" as grabbing a jersey when UK players tried to come off screens and holding a player to keep him from jumping for a rebound.
Auburn freshman Jordon Granger was ejected with 1:12 left in the first half after being called for a "flagrant two" technical foul. UK's Archie Goodwin also received a technical in an exchange that saw Granger flail away with a slap-punch.
About six minutes into the second half, the referees called a "flagrant one" technical on Auburn senior and leading scorer Frankie Sullivan when he prevented a breakaway layup by coming from behind and knocking Kyle Wiltjer off his feet.
Auburn committed 29 of the game's 50 fouls.
"I thought our guys played a clean game," Barbee said.
Cauley-Stein suggested — make that declared — that Auburn and many future Kentucky opponents will use the tactics of an inferior team trying to negate an opponent's superior talent,
"Absolutely," he said. "That's how it is every year here. We get really talented players. It kind of evens out the playing field. They're not going to let you use your athleticism or they're going to take away whatever you're good at."
There were few highlights defensively. Nerlens Noel did not block a shot until the final 65 seconds. That was his only block, which equaled a season low.
Wiltjer led a balanced UK attack with 14 points. Ryan Harrow and Cauley-Stein added 12 each while Julius Mays and Noel had 10 each. Noel also grabbed 12 rebounds.
Auburn, 9-14 and 3-7, shot much more accurately compared to its 0-for-15 three-point night against Kentucky last month. The Tigers made seven of 13 three-point attempts. Both of Auburn's big men fouled out within a minute of each other with more than six minutes left.
Calipari did not embrace the toil and trouble that he just witnessed.
"I just don't want to get anybody hurt," he said. "That was my whole thing the whole game."
A foul is a foul, Calipari said. All should be called.
But, the UK coach acknowledged being "a little self-serving" since opponents figure to try to push his freshman-dependent team around.
"If I had a big team, and a physical team, maybe I'd say, 'Let them play, what are you talking about, big baby,'" Calipari said.
Bottom line: Kentucky won. Except for that Poythress pass, artistry had little to do with it.
"I mean, it's not that fun because you don't get to do anything," Cauley-Stein said of the style. "You get 'grind points.' It's more fun jumping through the air and dunking on people.
"Still, it's basketball."
Kentucky at Florida
When: 7 p.m. TV: ESPN