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GAME RECAP: #2 Auburn 80, #12 Kentucky 71

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That’s your new nationally top-ranked team.

Syndication: The Montgomery Advertiser Jake Crandall / USA TODAY NETWORK

It’s hard to write a game recap while you’re trying to come to grips with the fact that Auburn will now be the new number one team in America come Monday around noon.

Bruce Pearl’s Tigers won their 15th straight game today by beating #12 Kentucky 80-71 at Auburn Arena. With an 18-1 overall record, and a 7-0 SEC record that includes tiebreakers over Kentucky, LSU, and Alabama, the Tigers are in a fantastic position as we near the midpoint of the conference slate.

Today was tough, like we all knew it would be, and Auburn had to overcome some early adversity that may have stemmed from the excess of emotion inside Auburn Arena. Despite those early troubles, the Tigers won the battles where they needed, most notably on the interior, where Kentucky had no answer for Walker Kessler, who led the way with 19 points on 8-10 shooting. He matched up and won his share of battles with Oscar Tshiebwe, the rebounding monster, who had a fairly benign 16 points and 14 rebounds. Auburn also benefitted from injuries to Kentucky’s backcourt, with TyTy Washington going down on a bum ankle in the first half, and Sahvir Wheeler getting taken down on a solid screen from Kessler.

In the early going, Kentucky took advantage of the amped up Tigers, scoring the opening bucket on a steal and score on Auburn’s opening possession. After a K.D. Johnson three gave Auburn a 7-4 lead early, Kentucky went on a big run. With Walker Kessler on the bench for a bit of early rest, Bruce Pearl went with Dylan Cardwell, and three consecutive plays directed toward him resulted in turnovers. The Cats ran out a 13-0 spurt and ended up leading 17-7 before a Jabari Smith jumper broke the surge before the next timeout.

Consecutive buckets by Smith, including his first three of the day cut the Wildcat lead to 19-16 over the next couple of minutes, but Kentucky rebuilt a 9-point lead on a second-chance jumper by TyTy Washington. It was on this play that he came down on Tshiebwe’s foot, turned his ankle, and left for the remainder of the game with Kentucky up 25-16. Auburn chipped away at the lead, getting it down to 4 points before the end of the half where Walker Kessler’s third dunk of the final two minutes made it 33-29 Kentucky at the intermission.

The big thing going for Auburn in the first half was that the Tigers had just 4 bench points, 5 points off of turnover, and 0 fastbreak points, yet trailed only by 4 points. The Tigers had also only committed 2 fouls, giving them a ton of leeway with the starters after halftime.

When the second half began, Auburn came out with a mission to take the lead quickly. Zep Jasper hit a floater near the lane to pull the game within one score, and after the two teams traded threes, K.D. Johnson’s strong drive and score tied the contest at 38-38. Tshiebwe gave the Cats the lead back, but then Jabari Smith buried three foul shots to put Auburn on top 41-40 with 14:50 remaining. He followed that with another bucket, and then a Devan Cambridge fastbreak dunk was the catalyst for Auburn to retain control for the rest of the half.

Back-to-back threes from Wendell Green a few minutes later gave the Tigers a 51-47 lead, and on the second one he was freed up by a huge screen from Walker Kessler, who crunched Sahvir Wheeler in the process. Wheeler had to go to the locker room, and Auburn got to extend the lead against Kentucky’s second-string backcourt.

With the guards freed up, Green was able to move more easily and found Kessler more often in the paint.

Kessler’s bucket with 9:12 to play gave the Tigers a 58-48 lead, and then Auburn started to exert control at the foul line. With Kentucky getting into foul trouble, the Tigers hit their first 15 free throws of the second half, including three by K.D. Johnson to build a 64-52 advantage with 6 minutes left. Kentucky didn’t go away, though, and a Kellam Grady three with 3:20 to go cut the lead to 68-64. At that point, the Tigers got the killer score they needed from Jabari Smith, and Auburn then continued to hit their foul shots down the stretch.

In the end, any hope that Kentucky may have had was dashed by Johnson’s late foul shots with :25 remaining, and Auburn danced into the final with an 80-71 victory to improve to 18-1 on the season and lay claim to the top ranking in the country.

FINAL STATS

INITIAL THOUGHTS

  • So, when I was growing up, Auburn just didn’t beat Kentucky. It was a super rarity. Now, the Tigers have won 5 of the last 9 against Kentucky. Bruce Pearl has built Auburn into what might be the preeminent program in the SEC over the last few years.
  • Coming in, much of the thought was that the battle between Walker Kessler and Oscar Tshiebwe would be the highlight of the day, and it didn’t disappoint. While Tshiebwe got his numbers, he didn’t end up becoming any sort of deciding factor for Kentucky. While he was solid on the offensive end, with his 14 rebounds and 16 points, much of that work came early, and Kessler ate his lunch for the last half of the afternoon.
  • For a team that put up 107 on Tennessee, Kentucky found it tougher and tougher as the game went on to make any real headway offensively. Much of their boost early came with (sorry, Dylan) the turnovers from Cardwell and the quick surge when Bruce made a bit of a questionable decision to take out the starters early.
  • I don’t want to shine too brightly here, yet... wait, that’s not Peacock energy at all... so I will say it. Auburn hasn’t played their best game yet. They messed around for much of the first half, trailed by just 4 points, and controlled the second half. They can do things in so many ways, and have guys that aren’t afraid to take on different roles. When Jabari wasn’t having a great day offensively (still finished with 14 points and 7 boards), he was a monster on defense. Blocking shots, getting in the way, and skying for boards way above even Tshiebwe. When the Tigers put together an actual complete game, it could be something really epic to watch.
  • Let’s look at the SEC race 7 games in. Auburn’s at 7-0, and has a two-game lead on everyone except for Texas A&M, who’s 4-1 right now. After the SEC/Big 12 challenge next weekend, everyone will have the same number of conference games, so this will be a little more clear. At the moment, Auburn has a two-game lead on Kentucky (with the tiebreaker), and a three-game lead on Alabama, LSU, and Florida, with tiebreakers over all three. Here’s Auburn’s next few conference games:

@ Missouri

vs Alabama

@ Georgia

@ Arkansas

vs Texas A&M

Auburn will be favored in each of these, and the road games come against teams that are a combined 5-11 so far in league play. Let’s peacock and say that Auburn gets to 12-0 in the SEC, then that would give the Tigers a clear 3-game edge at worst over everyone else in the league. The Tigers could be wrapping up the SEC regular season title against Ole Miss at home on February 23rd. It’s a wild time to be alive.

  • Oh yeah, Auburn’s going to be #1 in the country at noon on Monday.

UP NEXT

For the soon-to-be #1 Auburn Tigers, they’ll take to the road after a week at home and visit Columbia, Missouri. Tip-off comes on Tuesday the 25th at 7:30 pm CST.