John Calipari: I had to fight them the whole game
Historically hot shooting propelled Kentucky to a 92-72 victory over Auburn on Saturday.
The Cats made 57.1 percent of their shots, which marked the fifth straight Southeastern Conference game with half or more of the shots going in. That hadn’t happened since Joe B. Hall’s Final Four team of 1983-84 shot 50 percent or better against eight straight SEC opponents.
UK, which improved to 15-2 overall and 5-0 in the SEC, was particularly hot from three-point range. The Cats made 11 of 19 three-point shots. Only the 13 against Texas A&M on Jan. 3 were more this season.
Five UK players scored in double digits. Malik Monk led the way with 24. Bam Adebayo added 15, De’Aaron Fox 13, Mychal Mulder 12 and Isaiah Briscoe 10.
Auburn, which fell to 11-6 overall and 1-4 in the SEC, played without its top freshman, big man Danjel Purifoy. He missed a second straight game because of a sprained ankle.
T.J. Dunans scored a career-high 23 points to lead Auburn.
Mustapha Heron, the first five-star recruit to play for Auburn, struggled to 11 points. That still extended a program-record streak of double-digit performances to begin a college career to 17.
Kentucky made eight three-pointers en route to a 51-39 halftime lead. The Cats had made eight or fewer three-point shots in 12 of the previous 16 games.
Six UK players made threes. Perhaps the most surprising sharpshooter was Gabriel. He had made one three-point shot since Nov. 25. But he hit two in the first five minutes. Those six points were the most he’d scored in a game since getting 10 against Arizona State in the Bahamas the Monday after Thanksgiving.
It took a while for Kentucky to gain control. There were nine lead changes in the first five-plus minutes.
Kentucky’s first-half lead reached its zenith when Adebayo posted up for a score that made it 36-23 with 7:17 left.
Dominique Hawkins, who had made one three-point shot since Dec. 11, restored a 13-point bulge (45-32) with 2:32 left.
Auburn got only one basket in the first half from Heron. He made a layup off an inbounds pass barely four minutes in. Otherwise, he took only one shot.
More bad news for Auburn: It’s leading scorer in the first half, TJ Lang (nine points), picked up his third foul with 62 seconds left.
Kentucky got a bit of unsettling news early in the second half. Briscoe picked up his third foul, sending UK’s leader to the bench with 19:41 left.
Briscoe’s absence (he came back with 16:11 left) did not hurt Kentucky. With Gabriel taking charges on back-to-back possessions, the Cats led 57-44 at the first television timeout of the second half.
Led by Dunans, Auburn rallied. He scored 10 straight points in a run that saw Auburn close within 60-56.
Briscoe eased the growing anxiety by hitting a three-pointer — what else in this game? — to put Kentucky ahead 63-56 with 12:06 left. His shot improved UK’s shooting from three-point range to nine of 16.
Four minutes later, Auburn closed within 70-64. A three-pointer by Heron, the shot that put him double digits, reduced the UK lead to six.
Again, a three-pointer calmed the Rupp Arena crowd. This time Monk connected from the corner.
The happy feeling was not long lasting. Fox picked up his fifth foul 19 seconds later and went to the bench with 7:23 left.
Happy faces returned to Rupp courtesy of a dunk by — believe it or not — Hawkins. Taking a pass from Monk, he reached high with his right hand and dunked. It was only the second dunk of the season, and fourth of his four-year career. It put UK ahead 75-65 with 6:51 left and made victory seem inevitable.
No. 6 Kentucky at Mississippi State
7 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)