A month ago, maybe Kentucky doesn’t win this college basketball game.
A month ago, Kentucky does not win this college basketball game.
But that was a month ago — heck, two weeks ago — and this is a different Kentucky basketball team now, one that lost a 17-point lead in the electric, noisy den that was a packed Auburn Arena, fell behind by a single point with 31 seconds left and still squeezed out an 82-80 win over Bruce Pearl’s 14th-ranked Tigers in a key Southeastern Conference matchup.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Scoreless at Georgia on Tuesday night, Keldon Johnson poured in 20 points. Tyler Herro added 20 and 12th-ranked Kentucky, the same team that failed to get the job done up the road at Alabama, improved to 14-3 overall and 4-1 in the SEC. Maybe more important, the Cats are now 3-1 in true road games with wins over Louisville, Georgia and now Auburn.
Heck, even Charles Barkley stuck his head in UK’s postgame press conference to congratulate John Calipari after jokingly hitting him with an f-bomb first.
“Love you, man,” added Barkley. “Appreciate you.”
OK, so Auburn was without its best inside presence, center Austin Wiley. Shortly before tip-off came word that the 6-foot-10 junior would miss the next two weeks with a lower leg injury. And Wiley is averaging 10.8 points and 6.1 rebounds. To be sure, that was a factor in Saturday’s outcome, but so was this: “Kentucky is better than they were a year ago,” Pearl said. “I think they’re playing with a purpose. They value possessions more.”
Nail on the head. Auburn entered Saturday’s game No. 1 nationally in defensive turnover percentage — the number of forced turnovers divided by number of possessions. Auburn lives and dies by the three-point shot, but so many of those three-point shots are taken in rapid transition off live-ball turnovers. Against Kentucky, Auburn didn’t get enough of those.
Kentucky turned the ball over just 13 times. In an up-and-down game, that’s not a lot. It helped the Cats turn a 27-26 Auburn lead with 4:34 left in the first half to a 35-27 Kentucky advantage at halftime. And it’s what helped the visitors charge out of the locker room to a 10-2 run and a 45-29 advantage. And when PJ Washington finished an old-fashioned thee-point play with 17:01 left, the Kentucky lead was 17 points at 48-31.
Auburn didn’t quit. Pearl’s teams seldom quit. Mad bomber Bryce Brown got hot, finishing with 28 points. Jared Harper, the Tigers’ jitterbug of a point guard, ended up with 17. Bit by bit, Auburn fought its way back into it. “When you shoot threes like they do,” said UK Coach John Calipari, “you’re never out of a game.”
Back-to-back Brown triples chopped the Kentucky lead to 66-63. When Harper rose up over Ashton Hagans to nail a three-point with just 31 ticks left, the home team had an 80-79 lead, and the home folks believed they had witnessed an amazing comeback to tell their grandkids about — 17 down to beat Kentucky.
Not so fast. A pair of Herro free throws with 24 seconds left put the Wildcats back in front 81-80. On the other end, Harper tried to take Hagans on the dribble, got to the lane, tried a hanging shot off the glass — “A good look,” Pearl said — that rimmed around and out. Ballgame.
If an earlier version of this Kentucky team would not have built a 17-point lead over a ranked team on the road, an earlier version would not have gutted out the win, either, by playing to their strengths. As Pearl pointed out, UK was “bigger and more physical at every position.” And this: “Their guards looked over our guards” talking about Johnson and Herro.
And in the end, the Cats took care of the basketball when they had to take care of the basketball. They valued the possessions. They made tough plays in a tough environment. “We didn’t really get rattled,” Johnson said afterward.
A couple of weeks earlier, this team may not have been able to do that. Saturday, they did.