Wherever this Kentucky team goes, whatever it does, however this season ends, know this: It won’t be easy. And the Wildcats almost seem to prefer it that way.
The team that had Mississippi State down 20 and Louisville down 16, only to have to scramble at the end to win, ran out of luck (and time) down on the plains Saturday afternoon. The Wildcats relaxed with their lead at 12 with 15:41 left to play and seemed to welcome Auburn back into the fray.
“They don’t understand winning basketball,” Calipari said of the Cats. “All we had to do is grind it at that point. But we’re playing young kids.”
The Tigers took full advantage. With Kareem Canty seeming to throw in triples from Birmingham, Auburn fed off the energy from an overflow crowd and ground the Wildcats down, pulling off a 75-70 upset, the first time the Tigers have beaten Kentucky in 19 years. It was also the first time they’ve beaten a ranked team since 2009.
So it was unfamiliar territory for Auburn. Not so for inexperienced Kentucky, which lacks either the killer instinct or simply the ability to put away an opponent.
It was another game where the bigs – except for one of them – were all but MIA. Marcus Lee struggled with early fouls and Alex Poythress, who seemed bent on erasing the memory of his disappearing act against MSU, caught a finger to the eye early in the second half and spent part of the period in the trainer’s room.
Derek Willis did everything he could to pick them up.
After admitting on Thursday that he lacked confidence in his defensive game, Willis turned in his best effort as a Wildcat, scoring 12 points, grabbing a career-high 12 rebounds (eight in the first half) and showing more energy on defense than he has all season.
Still, it wasn’t enough.
A game that could have been a rout (the Wildcat lead seemed to have quieted the crowd, which may have started dreaming of spring football practice) got way too interesting with every three-pointer that Canty buried on his way to a game-high 26.
It took Auburn less than six minutes to erase the 12-point deficit and take a two-point lead, as the Tigers outscored the Wildcats, 18-4. At one point, the home team hit six straight shots, four of them three-pointers.
In fact, the lead swelled to five before the Cats, to their credit, battled back. When Ulis dropped in a layup, Kentucky had a 67-65 lead with 1:42 left.
From there it was all blue… and orange.
The Tigers scored nine straight over the next 80 seconds, taking a 74-67 lead. The Cats seemed powerless to stop them. And that’s why this season, right now, doesn’t seem as though it has as much promise as it did in the opening weeks, when Kentucky rallied to beat Duke.
Kentucky doesn’t shoot well enough to survive a track meet-style of game. The Cats hit only 35 percent from the field, missing 12-of-18 from beyond the arc. There’s nobody inside who can consistently come up with easy buckets that would arrest an opposing rally. "They don't have, right now against some defenses, a go-to post presence," Auburn coach Bruce Pearl told reporters after the game.
Calipari, on his post-game radio show, alluded once again to a lack of help under the bucket.
“I just wish we could throw it to a guy and he could make that two-footer,” Calipari said, adding that Skal Labissiere isn’t close to be ready to play extended minutes.
But the UK coach does have other options – the guys from Down Under. “We may need to play Isaac (Humphries),” he said. “We may need to play Tai (Wynyard) - throw them in there and see what they can do.”
Auburn hit only 38 percent from the floor but from downtown the Tigers bombed away at a rate of 46 percent, burying 12 treys to Kentucky’s six, which is why they survived the Wildcats’ 48-38 edge on the boards.
Whether it’s size, depth or toughness, the Cats aren’t yet capable of defensively shutting down quality teams well enough to go on game-clinching runs. Nobody is claiming Auburn is part of college basketball royalty, but like so many that the Wildcats face, it’s a team that played like a mop-pusher in its SEC losses and resembled the ’85 Celtics Saturday afternoon.
Get used to it, Wildcats.
“We’ll figure it out,” Calipari said. “Playing on the road is hard. Having a young team that doesn’t know how to win yet… they just play basketball.”
It was a game that cried out for a team that knows how to win. It featured 11 ties and 11 lead changes and it ended on the wrong side of the worksheet for the Wildcats, who can’t afford any more of these. They need the kindest NCAA tournament draw they can get, if they expect to make a tournament run toward Houston.
They stepped in quite a pothole Saturday afternoon.