Auburn Arena is not the biggest venue, seating under 10,000, but with each made three-pointer by the home team Sunday afternoon it just seemed to get smaller and smaller and louder and louder until finally by game’s end it had swallowed this Kentucky basketball team whole.
The Cats were favored by 11. With 15 minutes remaining, they led by 12. Yet somehow they ended up losing by five, 75-70; the notion that this 14th-ranked Kentucky team should handle the 7-8 Tigers without much of a problem all lost in the sea of Auburn students celebrating on the floor.
And afterward as they left their locker room for the plane ride back home, that’s what the Cats looked like – lost.
“No way we should have lost that game,” Tyler Ulis said. “And, we did.”
The 5-foot-9 point guard had scored 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds – one more than 6-9 Marcus Lee (four), 6-8 Alex Poythress (three) and 7-1 Skal Labissiere (two) had combined – despite playing with an illness that had Ulis shaking while doing his post-game interviews.
“We had people who didn’t want to play,” he said. “We had some bad decisions on offense.”
Didn’t want to play?
“We didn’t play hard as a team,” Ulis said.
We’ve heard this before, of course. It’s a recurring theme. Ulis said the same thing after UK lost on the road at LSU. There were similar whispers after the December defeat at UCLA. “No-shows” was the phrase head coach John Calipari used previously about his inside guys and repeated it Saturday.
Meanwhile, doing interviews on the other side of the hallway was one who did show up. Derek Willis produced his first career double-double, scoring 12 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. Friday, Calipari had ridiculed Willis’ “bad habits” on defense. Saturday, the junior played with energy and bounce and effectiveness.
“I took it as more of a challenge when my dad contacted me,” Willis said. “He was like, ‘I know what kind of player you are, what you can be, and the stuff you can do.’ Before the game, he texted me and said if you don’t have six rebounds, I’m going to be (upset).”
Willis doubled that. On a team where effort and toughness has been a question, Willis showed both Saturday. He may not always be in the right place at the right time, especially on the defensive end, but his hustle and want-to are not in doubt.
“We lost the game,” Willis said. “It doesn’t matter how anyone is playing. If somebody has 40 (points) and 20 (rebounds) it doesn’t matter, you still lost.”
Yes, the Cats lost. Auburn forward Cinmeon Bowers had done some pre-game talking, saying Auburn’s guards were better than Kentucky’s guards, declaring this year’s Cats vulnerable, then flat-out predicting that Auburn would win the game. Give the Tigers credit. They backed it up. Down a dozen, Bruce Pearl’s team could have folded. Instead, it made 12 of 26 three-pointers for the game. It got the sell-out crowd – which included plenty of Kentucky blue – back into the game and made the most of it.
“What the home crowd does to some teams on some nights, it elevates you,” said Pearl afterward. “Our play was elevated tonight.”
As Calipari pointed out, however, similar statements were made by West Virginia players last season before Kentucky played the Mountaineers in an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game. UK won by 39. That was last season. This isn’t last season.
Calipari also claimed he wasn’t worried. It’s January, he said. There’s still time, he said. But he also said he wanted to try some changes, “Just let other guys play more. If you don’t deserve the minutes, let somebody else play.”
And then off Cal went, ready to catch that plane, while back inside the Auburn Arena there were still Tigers fans out on the floor, celebrating.