Tigers Trip the Wildcats!
Bryce Brown flies high to defend!
(A. P. Photo/Brynn Anderson)
War Eagle, everybody! This morning, I just have to take my hat off to the Auburn Tigers men’s basketball team. Even when the shots were not falling early, the Tigers battled and battled and stayed in the game with mighty Kentucky. The Wildcats were mired in a bit of a slump coming in, but this is still a powerful team with good players, and I think they showed that. Auburn pulled away late and outhustled the Wildcats 76–66.
If you had told me that Auburn was going to miss 15 of its first 16 shots in the early going, I would have predicted a huge Kentucky lead. Instead, the biggest lead of the evening the Wildcats could muster was 6 points, with an early 10–4 lead. Auburn chipped away at that, mostly at the free throw line, and took an 11–10 lead about midway through the first half on a Malik Dunbar 3-pointer off the bench.
Both teams played aggressive defense, and blocked shots and turnovers were a key factor. Kentucky had 2 steals and 4 blocked shots, while Auburn had 9 steals and 5 blocked shots against the much taller Wildcats. A key sequence involved a steal by Bryce Brown early, with the possibility of an easy layup or dunk. Instead, Brown was grabbed from behind with both hands by Quade Green, a flagrant foul. Brown hit both free throws, and Auburn retained possession, ending with the Dunbar 3-pointer mentioned above. Auburn was charged with just 7 turnovers on the evening, while Kentucky had 14.
As cold as Auburn was early, it still shot better than Kentucky did. Beyond the arc and at the free throw line, Auburn had big advantages. Auburn hit 24 of 28 free throws, and Kentucky was 13 of 20. On 3-point shots, Auburn hit 8 of 27 attempts while Kentucky was just 3 of 14. Of the Kentucky shooters, I was really only impressed with Kevin Knox, who hit 7 of 13 from the floor. Knox hit several jumpers while moving at odd angles and was a big reason Auburn did not pull out to a big lead.
As has been usual in SEC play, Auburn had trouble in the lane with Kentucky’s big men. When Kentucky wasn’t turning the ball over, the big guys were attacking the paint and got a good many layups and dunks on the smaller Tigers. One on one, Kentucky’s ball-handlers are difficult to guard without fouling. Fail to foul, and they can dribble right around defenders and take the ball to the hole. Credit to Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl for a key second half adjustment. Recognizing that the Wildcats were just laying the ball in at will, the Tigers switched to a 2–3 zone with help underneath the basket. Kentucky was unable to make the Tigers pay from outside and went the last 5 minutes of the ball game without making a basket.
Another Auburn key was the play of shooting guard Bryce Brown. A late addition to the starting lineup for this game, Brown has missed a couple of games with a strained shoulder. Wearing a brace in this game, he played 29 minutes, scored 18 points and defended against perimeter players brilliantly.
Absolutely critical late was the defensive play underneath by Anfernee McLemore and Desean Murray. These guys are only 6′ 7” and 6′ 3,” respectively, but they accounted for 11 rebounds each, 22 total points, 5 assists, 3 blocked shots and 4 steals. This pair really smothered the ball in the lane late in the game.
We are now down to just 5 games left in the regular season, and Auburn is in first place with a strong 3 game lead over Tennessee, over whom Auburn owns the tiebreaker. An Auburn team picked to go 4–14 in the league is leading the SEC race in the homestretch and has a great chance to win the regular season SEC title. War Eagle!
A tough slate is ahead, but Auburn has been winning most of the tough games this year. I’m very optimistic. The remaining games are at South Carolina, hosting Alabama, at Florida, at Arkansas and hosting South Carolina.