With strong second half, Auburn downs short-handed Wildcats

UK can't finish a late run on Auburn court

AUBURN, Ala. (AP/WTVQ) — Students set up camp outside Auburn Arena for at least 24 hours, waiting to get into the biggest home game in years.

The second-ranked Tigers made it worth the wait.

Walker Kessler scored 19 points and K.D. Johnson added 17, helping Auburn keep its hot streak alive and make a case for the top ranking with an 80-71 victory over No. 12 Kentucky on Saturday (click for box score 1987524).

The Tigers (18-1, 7-0 Southeastern Conference) rallied from a 10-point deficit to win their 15th straight in likely the biggest home game since the arena opened in 2010. It was big enough that students at the traditional football school were pitching tents by Friday morning and endured the cold weather overnight to make sure they got in.

“To me it felt like a movie,” Johnson said. “I never played in anything like that. It’s just so fun.”

The Tigers, who have matched the highest ranking in program history, are hoping to move up to the top spot for the first time. Fans chanted No. 1 in the final moments, hoping their team will supplant Gonzaga.

“Sometimes it’s hard to have such high expectations be lived up to,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “But I don’t think there’s any question that that game and that environment lived up to anybody’s expectations.”

Kentucky’s No. 2 scorer, TyTy Washington, only played eight minutes and scored four points before being helped off the court with a left ankle injury. He didn’t return.

“That hurt us. No excuse though,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said. “We had our chances to win. We had breakdowns defensively.

“Defensively, the lob play, which we just kept telling the guys get off, but they just didn’t do it. They’ve done this to a lot of teams, but it was something that we thought we could guard.”

Johnson made 3 of 5 3-pointers for Auburn. Kessler hit 8 of 10 shots and had seven rebounds. Jabari Smith had 14 points and seven boards for the Tigers, who hit their first 15 free throws in the second half.

Wendell Green Jr. was scoreless for the first 28 minutes, then hit a pair of 3-pointers in a 25-second span and finished with 11 points.

Oscar Tshiebwe had 16 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots for Kentucky (15-4, 5-2) and was already hoping for a rematch.

“I don’t think they’re better than us,” Tshiebwe said. “I think we’re going to beat them. I want to play them again.”

Kellan Grady made 4 of 7 3-pointers and scored 17 points. Sahvir Wheeler, Johnson’s former teammate at Georgia, also scored 17 points and had four assists but was also dealing with an apparent leg injury late.

The Tigers, who trailed by 10 points during the first half, took a 64-52 lead with 6:07 remaining. Johnson hit three free throws after getting fouled on a 3-point shot — as Jaylin Williams and Jabari Smith had earlier in the half.

Grady’s 3-pointer from the right corner cut it to four points with 3:20 to play.

“I see why they call it The Jungle,” Grady said. “I’m not going to go on and on about how awesome their fans are, but this is obviously an electric atmosphere and a tough place to play.”

The Wildcats scored 13 consecutive points to build a double-digit lead six minutes into the game. Auburn managed to whittle it down to 33-29 by halftime with back to back dunks by Kessler in the final 38 seconds.

“It doesn’t faze us when we get down,” Johnson said. “We just keep playing, we don’t get rattled. We just stay together and make the comeback.”


Kentucky was short-handed without Washington and cooled off after a hot start. The Wildcats did shoot 50% (29 of 58). A team that came in leading the nation in rebound margin was outrebounded 27-26, with Tshiebwe grabbing more than half.

Auburn made 26 of 44 shots (56.8%) to outpace the league’s highest scoring team. The Tigers have won six of the last 11 meetings in a series mostly dominated by Kentucky historically.


The Tigers are hoping this win, coupled with a blowout of last-place Georgia, will be enough to secure their first No. 1 ranking. Kentucky likely won’t fall far after beating Texas A&M in mid-week.


Auburn visits Missouri on Tuesday night.

Kentucky hosts Mississippi State on Tuesday night.

Final Score: No. 2/2 Auburn 80, No. 12/12 Kentucky 71 

Team Records, Series Notes, Etc.

  • Kentucky ended a four-game winning streak and is now 15-4 on the season and 5-2 in the Southeastern Conference.
  • Auburn has a 15-game winning streak and is 18-1 overall, 7-0 in the conference.
  • Today’s game marked the third of five consecutive games for Kentucky against teams that had a combined record of 64-13 when the stretch began Jan. 15.
  • The Wildcats lead the series, 96-23, including 31-18 at Auburn.  However, Auburn has won the last three matchups held in Auburn Arena.
  • Next for Kentucky: UK returns home to host Mississippi State on Tuesday. Game time is 9 p.m. and it will be televised on ESPN.

Team Notes

  • Kentucky shot 50% percent from the field today, 29 of 58, and the Wildcats are now 9-1 this season when making at least half their shots in a game.
  • Auburn shot 56.8% percent from the field (25 of 44), the highest percentage by a UK opponent this season.
  • UK led by 10 points in the first half.  UK is 300-13 under Calipari when leading by at least 10 points during the game, including 14-1 this season.
  • Kentucky was outrebounded, 27-26. The Wildcats are 0-3 this season when losing or tying the boardwork.
  • Auburn’s work at the foul line was a difference-maker as the Tigers made 24 of 29.  The Wildcats shot well at the charity stripe but got to the line only 10 times, making eight. 

Player Notes 

  • Sahvir Wheeler scored 17 points, the second game in a row he led the team in scoring, and chipped in four assists.
  • Making 4 of 7 on 3-pointers, Kellan Grady tied for UK scoring honors with 17 points.
    • Over the last 10 games he is averaging 14.1 points per game while shooting 48.4 percent from the field (47 of 97), including 46.1 percent (35 of 76) from 3-point range.
    • It is the seventh time this season he has made at least four 3-pointers in a game.
  • Oscar Tshiebwe totaled 16 points and 14 rebounds.
    • It is his 13th double-double of the season, ranking third in the nation in that category.
    • The nation’s leading rebounder has grabbed double-figure boards in all but two games this season.
  • TyTy Washington Jr. incurred an ankle injury at the 8:20 mark of the first half and did not return. He totaled four points and one assist in nine minutes of action. 

Coach Calipari

  • John Calipari is now 354-97 at UK.
  • Calipari remains one win short of No. 800 and has a 799-237 all-time on-court record.
  • Since 2005-06, Calipari is 114-56 on the road at UK and Memphis.
  • UK is 65-41 vs. Associated Press ranked competition under Calipari, including 1-3 vs. teams ranked No. 2.
  • Calipari is now 13-6 vs. Auburn, all at Kentucky.
  • Calipari has tallied a 372-118 all-time record within conference play as a head coach and owns a 164-52 record since joining the SEC.

In the First Half

  • The starting lineup featured Sahvir Wheeler, TyTy Washington Jr., Kellan Grady, Keion Brooks Jr. and Oscar Tshiebwe for the third consecutive game. UK is now 12-4 with that starting lineup this season.
  • Trailing 7-4, Kentucky went on a 13-0 spurt for a 17-7 lead.
  • Jacob Toppin was UK’s first substitute at the 13:33 mark but picked up two quick fouls.
  • UK got six steals in the first 11 minutes of the game, leading to 13 points off turnovers and a 23-16 lead.
  • Auburn’s Walker Kessler got a pair of dunks in the final minute, narrowing UK’s lead to 33-29 at halftime. UK is 14-2 this season when leading at intermission.
  • UK won points off turnovers 15-5 and fast-break points 11-0 in the opening period.
  • Wheeler had eight points and Grady seven in the first half, while Tshiebwe had six points and eight rebounds.

 In the Second Half

  • Kentucky began the second half with Wheeler, Davion Mintz, Grady, Brooks and Tshiebwe.
  • With UK ahead 38-33, Auburn went on a 12-2 run to reclaim for a 45-40 advantage, their first lead since early in the game.
  • UK fought back to tie at 45 but a pair of 3-pointers by Wendell Green Jr. sparked an 11-2 spurt to put the Tigers ahead for good.
  • Wheeler returned at 8:41.
  • Auburn lengthened their largest lead to 64-52, all totaled a 31-14 run since trailing by five points early in the half.
  • Kentucky kept scrapping and a Grady 3-pointer with 3:10 to go cut the lead to 68-64 but the Wildcats got no closer.
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