Saturday was one of those magical days in college sports when, every time you spin the dial, you see or hear about a great game with a fantastic finish. Louisville-Syracuse, Kansas-Texas, Michigan State-Ohio State, Marquette-Cincinnati – all entertaining in their own respective right.
Kentucky-Auburn was not one of them.
But a win is a win for John Calipari’s team. In fact, after an ugly first half that might have set the sport back a decade or so, at least the Wildcats began to play respectable basketball, so much so that they ended up “whomping on” the Tigers, 75-53, in a way Calipari doubted was possible, based on his comments following the Tennessee game.
The Wildcats missed 12 of their first 14 shots but finished the first half on a 10-of-14 run, but still had just a 30-25 lead over an Auburn team that had missed all 11 of its three-point attempts to that point. Nerlens Noel appeared to be on his way to a big game before picking up his second foul with 11 minutes left in the half. He headed for the bench with his four points, five rebounds and three blocked shots.
And when Noel was whistled for his third foul all of 13 seconds into the second period, it looked as though we were in for another 20 minutes of agonizingly inept basketball.
We were wrong.
Ryan Harrow heated up. Kyle Wiltjer heated up. Archie Goodwin, never shy about shooting, also began to find the range and the whomping was on.
Harrow scored six straight points, Wiltjer drained a trey, Noel hit a jumper, Goodwin completed a three-point play and Wiltjer scored again, and the Wildcats had a 16-point lead. By now, ESPN had welcomed Charles Barkley to the press table and completely forfeited control of its broadcast, but UK fans had to be delighted, because Sir Charles droned on about how much he’d like to see the young Wildcats – ALL of them – stay in school for another year.
Kentucky’s lead reached 20 with 7:47 left on a bucket by Alex Poythress, and it kept growing. Jarod Polson’s layup made it 71-45; Poythress’ free throw a little more than a minute later extended the lead to 27, the biggest it would get.
The Cats ended up hitting 55 percent on the evening; after that dreadful start they hit 28-of-41 shots for sizzling 68 percent (18-of-27 in the second half). Auburn hit just 35 percent from the field, including 0-of-15 from beyond the arc. It was just the third time in history, and the first time since 1997, that the Tigers failed to hit a three-pointer (Kentucky was 5-of-15 on triples).
Wiltjer responded to Calipari’s constant (over the past 10 days) public challenging to make changes by doing just that. The sophomore forward finished with 17 points (for the second straight game), four rebounds and a hefty five assists in the absence of forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who didn’t make the trip after minor knee surgery.
Noel was one rebound shy of a double-double, ending with 10 points and nine rebounds. Goodwin, Poythress and Harrow were three-of-a-kind, each finishing with 12 points. Harrow rang up eight assists along with an uncharacteristic five turnovers.
It was a whomping, all right, but keep in mind – this was Auburn.
On this same Saturday, Florida totally annihilated (83-52) a Missouri team that was supposed to be capable of challenging for the SEC championship. UK’s next opponent, Alabama, nipped Texas A&M 50-49 on a buzzer-beating jumper by Trevor Lacey, who turned down the Wildcats to play for the Crimson Tide. Think he’ll be excited to see Kentucky coming to town Tuesday night?
By the way: A&M, which scored 83 in its win over UK in Rupp Arena, has scored a total of 96 points in its last two games, losses to Florida and ‘Bama. Elston Turner, he of the 40-point effort against the Wildcats, managed just 13 against Alabama Saturday, and just four against the Gators.
Maybe there IS something to this “everybody’s Super Bowl” stuff. Auburn filled the house Saturday night for the Wildcats, but couldn’t overcome a blistering hot Kentucky team that took another stop – albeit of the “baby” variety – toward respectability. And, as always, any conference road win is a good win.
No matter what it might look like in the opening minutes.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)
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