In addition to my column, three takeaways from Kentucky’s 77-71 overtime loss to Auburn in the finals of the Midwest Region:
1. The final five minutes of the first half were the killer
That’s where Kentucky slammed into the open door that was a trip to the Final Four. Never mind the turnovers, the missed free throws and the poor three-point shooting. Where John Calipari’s Cats coughed up control of this heated all-SEC affair came after PJ Washington converted an old-fashioned three-point play to put the Cats up 27-17 exactly five minutes before halftime.
So hot throughout its tournament run, Auburn had shot the ball pitifully to that point. Bruce Pearl’s club was 1-of-8 from the floor at the under-16 TV timeout; 3-of-13 at at the 11:52 mark; 5-of-18, including 1-of-8 from three-point land with 7:53 remaining in the first half. Kentucky had its chance to put the Tigers away much like it did in the 80-53 romp at Rupp Arena over Auburn last month. It couldn’t do it.
So Auburn bowed its back and got right back in the game. Speedy point guard Jared Harper scored his first points of the afternoon on a drive around Jemarl Baker to make it 27-20. Harper then sank a three-pointer while being fouled and hit the free throw to make it 30-24. Anfernee McLemore scored inside to make it 31-26. Harper scored on a drive and McLemore on a dunk off a rebound cut it to 32-30. Only a three-pointer by UK’s Ashton Hagans with 12 seconds left made it 35-30 Cats at the break.
But Auburn started the second half with a 10-2 run for a 40-37 lead and from then on it was game on, especially where the Tigers were concerned. Filled with confidence, they were the aggressor, taking advantage of UK’s suspect ball-handling. Auburn entered as the nation’s leader in defensive turnover percentage. Meanwhile, Kentucky had suffered sporadic spells of lapsed ball security, especially with regard to its guards. It was a bad mix.
Give Auburn all the credit. Bryce Brown made all five of his second-half shots. Harper was terrific, the senior guard finishing with 26 points. UK’s strategy of running Auburn’s shooters off the three-point line played right into his hands.
But it was those five minutes before halftime when Auburn discovered it could win this game. And it did.
2. PJ Washington earned a place in UK basketball lore
More than likely, the sophomore forward from Texas played his final game in a Kentucky uniform on Sunday. Even in defeat, he went out the right way, scoring a game-high 28 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in 37 minutes.
This performance, remember, came just three days after no one knew for sure Washington would even play this weekend, thanks to the left foot he sprained in the team’s SEC Tournament semifinal loss to Tennessee. His left foot in a hard cast, Washington missed the Cats’ wins over Abilene Christian and Wofford last weekend. He had the cast removed in Wisconsin on Tuesday, screwed on his courage and contributed 16 points and a key blocked shot in the Cats’ 62-58 Sweet 16 win over Houston on Friday.
Washington played 26 minutes that night. He logged 37 of the game’s 45 minutes on Sunday. He was 10-of-18 from the floor, including 2-of-4 from three-point range. It was Washington’s three with 16.6 seconds left in overtime, cutting the Auburn lead to 74-71, that gave his team a chance to pull it out. Alas, the Cats could not.
When news first spread of Washington’s injury, not long after Selection Sunday, some wondered if he would even want to return, given his potential NBA future. That turned out to be ridiculous to the point of insulting. Given his injury, Washington didn’t have to play in this tournament. But he wanted to play, for his teammates, for his coaches, for his program and, with the exception of some missed free throws Sunday, he could not have played much better.
“It sucks,” he said Sunday. “You feel like all that hard work was for nothing.”
Believe me, it wasn’t for nothing.
3. This was not a good weekend for the blue bloods
North Carolina lost. Kentucky lost. Duke lost. Auburn had a lot to do with that, eliminating Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky from the bracket on its way to Minneapolis. “We were just honored to be on the court with those guys,” Pearl said Sunday.
Given their one-and-done methods, Duke’s and Kentucky’s defeats will attract the most scrutiny. Mike Krzyzewski had RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, Tre Jones and a fellow by the name of Zion Williamson, and still couldn’t make it to Minneapolis. John Calipari had a wise old grad transfer in Reid Travis, a talented holdover in Washington and a trio of terrific freshmen starters in Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson and Ashton Hagans, and couldn’t get the job done.
What no doubt sticks under Big Blue Nation’s skin is that this was the second straight year that a Final Four seemed ripe for the taking. Last year, even at No. 5, Kentucky was the highest seed left in the Midwest Region semifinals in Atlanta. Alas, the Cats took a Sweet 16 loss to No. 9 seed Kansas State. Bruce Weber last year; Bruce Pearl this year. As a No. 2 seed, UK faced a No. 5 seed Auburn that it had already beaten twice and had just lost its best front-court player, Chuma Okeke, to a torn ACL the game before.
Auburn won anyway. On the one hand, it’s difficult to beat any team, especially a good team, three times in the same season. On the other hand, Kentucky would surely trade one of those two earlier victories for the loss in Kansas City. It doesn’t work that way. Timing is everything. And it’s March that matters.