A strange role reversal unfolded at Auburn Arena Wednesday night.
Usually, it would be heralded Kentucky and unranked Auburn squaring off. But for the first time since Feb. 4, 1987, UK was not ranked and Auburn the top 25 team. With Auburn coming in at No. 10, it marked only the second time in the history of rankings that Auburn was in the top 10 and Kentucky unranked. The only previous time came on Feb. 23, 1963.
Basketball historians may note: Kentucky won both games. Some things – like UK’s dominance over Auburn and everyone else in the Southeastern Conference – are seamless and eternal.
Another constant – at least for this Kentucky season – decided this game. Kentucky battled an opponent until a winner and loser had yet to be decided going into the final minutes.
And again, Kentucky got outplayed.
Auburn’s 76-66 victory meant a fourth straight loss for Kentucky. Like the other three, the Cats came tantalizingly close to victory.
“We made strides today,” UK Coach John Calipari said of an effort that saw Kentucky lead a top-10 team on its court with barely six minutes to play.
But – and there’s regularly a but this season – Kentucky faltered.
“We made some dumb, inexperienced plays down the stretch,” Calipari said.
Kentucky fell to 17-9 overall and 6-7 in the SEC.
Auburn improved to 23-3 overall and a SEC-leading 11-2.
Kentucky, which led by four points inside the final seven minutes, trailed 68-64 with 3:14 left. But the Cats did not make a basket in the final five minutes.
“Our conditioning, our toughness, our resilience, our grit, that’s what won the game,” Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl said.
Kentucky limited Auburn to a season-low point total and 37.5-percent shooting. But 14 turnovers hurt UK.
Kevin Knox led the Cats with 19 points. PJ Washington added 11. Jarred Vanderbilt grabbed 10 rebounds,
Auburn got double-digit scoring from four players. Bryce Brown, who missed last weekend’s game because of a shoulder injury, led the Tigers with 15 points. Jared Harper added 14 and Mustapha Heron 10. Anfernee McLemore chipped in 13.
Kentucky could not have hoped for a better defensive first half. Auburn made only 10 of 33 shots.
The SEC’s most prolific offense (averaging 84.1 points in its first 12 league games) needed a late spurt to get to 39 points.
But with UK committing eight turnovers in the first eight-plus minutes, that was good enough for a 39-33 lead at intermission.
Calipari lamented his team’s failure to execute the game plan. This was reflected in Auburn scoring 31 of its 39 first-half points from either the foul line (13) or from the three-point line (18).
“First half, I lost my mind,” Calipari said. “We came into the game (planning to) guard the three and we’re not fouling. . . . I looked at my team: Did anyone listen to me on this?”
Auburn shot horribly and Kentucky was too loose with the ball at the start. Auburn made only one of its first 16 shots. That included zero for nine from three-point range for a team that led the SEC in three-point quality (40.6-percent accuracy) and quantity (an average of 10.5 treys per league game).
Turnovers helped prevent Kentucky from building more than a six-point lead.
Auburn’s first three-pointer – by Malik Dunbar in the right corner – put UK behind for the first time: 11-10 with 11:07 left.
One made shot was enough to kick-start Auburn’s offense. The Tigers made their next two shots, the second a fast-break layup that built the lead to 16-12, igniting cheers from the crowd and prompting a UK timeout with 9:57 left.
Auburn made nine of its final 17 shots of the half (six of eight from three-point range). That enabled the Tigers to lead by as much as 35-27 down the stretch.
Knox steadied Kentucky. His 12 first-half points included a short jumper in the lane with 1:45 left. Two possessions later, he took a pass in the same area, this time delivering a high-low pass to PJ Washington for a layup.
Kentucky kept Auburn’s troika of standout guards in check. Harper, Brown and Heron combined to make only five of 21 shots in the first half.
Kentucky began the second half with promise. Knox scored UK’s first three points. Vanderbilt was lively, feeding PJ Washington for a dunk and increasing his rebound total to nine before the first television timeout.
But foul trouble loomed. Vanderbilt picked up his third foul at the 16:07 mark. Twenty-seven seconds later, Gilgeous-Alexander went to the bench with his third foul. UK trailed 48-44.
With Auburn limited to one basket in five-plus minutes, Kentucky grinded down the deficit. The Cats took their first lead since the 10:20 mark of the first half when Wenyen Gabriel drove the baseline and dunked. That put UK ahead 49-48 and prompted an Auburn timeout with 13 minutes left.
Another surprising drive by Gabriel, this time pulling up and banking in a short jumper, put Kentucky ahead 55-51.
The margin was still four when Auburn outscored UK 11-4. Brown led the charge with a three-pointer and a pull-up jumper on the break. That put Auburn ahead 60-59 and prompted a UK time with 6:14 left.
UK did not wilt. But UK did not win.
Alabama at Kentucky
2 p.m. Saturday (CBS-27)