Tigers Take Down Kentucky
Auburn's leading scorer Bryce Brown returned from a shoulder injury to score 18 against Kentucky (photo: Julie Bennett/al.com)
Kentucky was in the middle of a three-game losing streak when it warmed up in Auburn Arena Wednesday. The last time the Wildcats played Auburn in The Jungle, the Tigers pulled off an astounding victory. But the last time Auburn beat Kentucky in back-to-back games at home?
Bruce Pearl knew. And Pearl was ready to do what seemed impossible: extend Kentucky’s losing streak while extending Auburn’s lead in the SEC at the expense of Big Blue. Obviously, some people believed it could happen. Vegas had a 9.5 point line in the hours before the game, and ESPN gave the Tigers an overwhelming percentage to win. Did they know that Bryce Brown was going to play? Perhaps they had an inside track.
As of the morning shootaround, Brown was a game-time decision. However, most Auburn followers figured he would play, if for no other reason but to put a body on Kentucky’s terrific guards. Not only did Brown play and limit three young talented guards to 19 combined points, his shot came back despite a sore shoulder. Bryce scored 18 points on 4–7 long-range sniping.
He was needed for Auburn’s shooting was as bad as it has ever been. The Tigers started out getting good looks but couldn’t hit anything. At one point, they were 1–21 from the field. Yet, Auburn still made 37 percent from the floor and 29 percent from downtown and beat the spread in a 76–66 victory. On the other side, Kentucky shot 46 percent from the floor with even worse 21 percent long -range shooting.
How did the Tigers pull off this win with one of their poorest shooting efforts?
They did something that previous Auburn clubs couldn’t do, and neither could Kentucky: make free throws. Auburn shot 87 percent while the ‘Cats were 65 percent from the charity stripe. In all, Auburn iced the game with 24 of its total points from the line.
Obviously, there were other factors, such as the 14–7 turnover differential in favor of Auburn plus nine steals and five blocks. Forcing Kentucky to spread the ball around and preventing its players from getting hot was a major key to the win. Kentucky’s Kevin Knox may have led all scorers with 19, but only one other Cat scored in double digits. Despite the disparity in length, Auburn stayed right with the lengthy Wildcats, pulling down seven offensive boards to nine for Kentucky, although Kentucky had two or three of those in a single possession where Auburn just could not establish itself down low.
Those are just the numbers. How did the game feel? The Jungle stayed lit all game, and the top came off on a Harper-to-McLemore alley-oop in which McLemore had a block on the other end, slammed it, and added ANOTHER block in the next defensive possession. Many fans remarked that it was the loudest the Arena has been in its young life. Bryce Brown’s last three pointer, with 90 seconds left in the game, was the slamming door. It was a fitting end to a game where his health was in question.
Lost among the stats was the work of Desean Murray, who only had nine points, and his work didn’t really show up in the box score. However, it was vital that Auburn do better on the blocks than in their losses to Alabama and Texas A&M. The junior forward had a blue-collar day against the big Kentucky players, all of whom had six inches on him. He fought through possessions and had a dreadful series of offensive turnovers. But, it was his tip in at the hoop with about six minutes to go that started the comeback to overcome Kentucky’s biggest lead of the night.
Next up is South Carolina, and the ESPN BPI gives Auburn a 77 percent chance to win in Columbia. The Gamecocks have lost six straight and are absolutely reeling. This team has beaten Kentucky and Tennessee but is a far cry from playing at that level currently. After allowing 80 or more points in three straight losses, the Gamecocks cracked down on defense in their last two contests. Still, they are 4–9 entering this game, and Auburn is the talk of the town.
The last time this scenario happened, Auburn dropped a game to Alabama, who since has caught fire and is the next game on the horizon. The game tips off at 2:30 Saturday on the SEC Network.
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