Think back to February 23rd, 2019, and the 80-53 loss at Kentucky. How’d you feel after that defeat? Did you ever think that in any universe that Auburn would rebound from that pounding to win the next 12 games on the way to the school’s first ever Final Four? Did you ever think that the listless team that entered Rupp Arena would be able to dominate top seeds in the NCAA Tournament and come within an eyelash of a national championship?
That’s why today’s slim defeat was more heartening than any other loss that Auburn has had this year. The Tigers took a 73-66 loss home today after leading early over the 8th ranked Wildcats of Kentucky. Auburn hadn’t won in Lexington since 1988, and that streak will continue for another year. Still, today wasn’t the worst thing in the world.
In an almost mirror image of the first meeting between the Tigers and Wildcats, Kentucky used the home court advantage to score the victory today. Back on February 1st, Auburn shot 44 free throws and dominated the paint against the Cats, taking away a 75-66 win on the Plains. Today, Kentucky shot 33 free throws and dominated the paint at times for a 73-66 win. On a neutral floor, it’s hard to say what would happen, but one thing is certain — the jump-off point for the 2020 Tigers is much higher than the spot that Auburn was in this time last year.
Today was a tease, too. For a team that doesn’t fare well on the road, Auburn blistered the Cats to start the game. Danjel Purifory hit three quick three-pointers, and Samir Doughty added one as well for Auburn to run up a 16-9 margin at the first break.Kentucky made a run thanks to a plethora of foul calls, with both Austin Wiley and J’Von McCormick getting saddled with two fouls apiece, but the Tigers never wilted. Despite Kentucky sitting in the double bonus for nearly ten minutes in the first half, they held just a 40-37 lead at halftime.
Out of the intermission, Auburn would keep it close, but never really come within true striking distance. Three times in the second half Auburn found itself down by just two points, but Kentucky rallied each time the Tigers fought back. For many watching the game, you felt as if Auburn was playing better in the middle portion of the second half, because Kentucky went more than eight minutes without making a shot, but their lead never dwindled because of the miasma of fouls that allowed them to score at the line. In the end, Auburn didn’t make the shots from the field or the line that would have kept the game close to the bitter end, and Kentucky escaped with the seven-point victory.
J’Von McCormick scored 13 points, but only had 1 assist to 2 turnovers after spending much of the first half on the bench with foul trouble. Austin Wiley secured yet another double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds, but Auburn got the frustrating end of what Samir Doughty did a month ago in watching Immanuel Quickley. Quickley scored 18 points for Kentucky, but did it on 3-10 shooting and an 11-11 performance at the foul line. Tyrese Maxey also added 17 as that duo popped off yet again.
We have no room to whine after Auburn got to shoot 44 free throws in the first meeting, but today’s game was widely regarded as poorly officiated across the board. Both head coaches came close to losing it at times, but Auburn was the recipient of some truly horrible and impactful decisions. Austin Wiley got saddled with a phantom foul early on that sent him to the bench and kickstarted a 12-0 Kentucky run. Auburn never recovered from that spurt.
With the win, Kentucky secures the top seed in Nashville, and now Auburn’s seeding is in doubt. The Tigers will almost certainly still earn a double bye, but they can shore up a 2-seed with a pair of victories over the coming week. Next up is Texas A&M for the first and only time this year on Wednesday night at 6 pm CST before the regular season finale in Knoxville a week from today.