John Clay

Kentucky’s crushing of Auburn shows it has the right stuff for March

Bruce Pearl on Kentucky: ‘Those guys are winners’

Auburn basketball coach Bruce Pearl talks to the media after his team’s 80-53 loss to Kentucky on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, at Rupp Arena. UK improved to 12-2 in SEC play. Auburn fell to 7-7 after its second loss to the Cats this season.
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Auburn basketball coach Bruce Pearl talks to the media after his team’s 80-53 loss to Kentucky on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, at Rupp Arena. UK improved to 12-2 in SEC play. Auburn fell to 7-7 after its second loss to the Cats this season.

All hail the Kentucky highlight glut from its 80-53 torching of Auburn in Rupp Arena on Saturday. The Cats got 24 points from PJ Washington. They sizzled (11-for-24) from three-point range. They limited the visiting Tigers to their lowest point total of the season. They told LSU and Tennessee to move it on over for a three-way tie atop the Southeastern Conference standings.

And even with all that, the biggest jaw-dropper of a surprising afternoon was this: Keldon Johnson grabbed 17 rebounds.

Yes, that’s a lot of rebounds.

“Keldon told on himself today,” crowed Kentucky Coach John Calipari afterward. “If he thinks he’s getting two rebounds next game, I’m going to be all over him.”

Truth be told, Saturday was a significant tell on this Kentucky basketball team. With just two weeks and four regular-season games remaining before the Madness that is March, the Cats again showed a collective soul and resourcefulness that should bode well for Calipari’s club come Big Dance season.

See, Reid Travis was in street clothes Saturday. The 6-foot-8 starting forward and graduate transfer from Stanford was injured in the slog that was UK’s 66-58 win at Missouri on Tuesday night. Diagnosis: Knee sprain. Estimated recovery time: Two weeks. Best-case scenario: Travis returns for the March 9 Senior Day game against Florida in Rupp Arena.

In the meantime, however, the Cats are charged with finding a way to replace not just Travis’ intense presence, physical defense and 11.3 points per game. They have to hope the off-the-bench combo of freshman EJ Montgomery and sophomore Nick Richards can find a way to make up for Travis’ 6.9 rebounds per game.

That duo did its best to fill the bill Saturday. As a starter, Montgomery scored six points, snatched seven rebounds and blocked three shots in 23 minutes. As a reserve, Richards had four points, three rebounds and three blocked shots in 20 minutes. Combine the two and that’s 10 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks.

That output would have been just OK, however, had Johnson not conducted a master class on the glass. According to UK stat maven Corey Price on Twitter, the 6-foot-6 Johnson’s 17 boards were the most rebounds by a UK player 6-6 or shorter since the renowned Rajon Rondo pulled down a ridiculous 19 rebounds for UK against Iowa on Nov. 21, 2005.

“My teammates were hot,” said Johnson, who scored eight points. “I didn’t really have to score. I love sharing. They’re hot, I keep giving them the ball and do something else to impact the game. If that’s rebounding, then that’s what I had to do.”

Johnson’s teammates were hotter than hot. His overall game solidified into cold, hard consistency, Washington buried five of his eight three-point attempts. After struggling to make a perimeter shot much of the season, point guard Ashton Hagans made multiple three-pointers for the second straight game. Tyler Herro played 29 minutes without committing a turnover. Up 45-31 at halftime, Kentucky had 13 assists on 17 made baskets.

“I know their players,” said Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl afterward, remarking he had recruited several of the current Cats. “Those guys are winners.”

They look the part more so all the time. True, Washington has led the team in scoring for six consecutive games, but his teammates have raised their games in different ways at different times. As so often under Calipari, you have to marvel at the mesh. The Duke loss seems many moons away. Right here, right now, it’s Kentucky, LSU and Tennessee at 12-2 in a mad dash for the SEC finish line.

With Travis sidelined, you wondered if UK could stay in the race, much less win it. Saturday showed you’d be crazy to count these Cats out. Winners seem to find a way.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.


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