With eight minutes to go, Kentucky was in control of this game. Ahead by four, Hamidou Diallo stepped up and shot a three, which would have pushed the lead to seven. Unfortunately, it rattled out. From there, Auburn cut the lead to two, and after a Diallo turnover a minute later, took the lead for good, finishing the game on a 16-7 run to win 76-66, pushing Kentucky to 17-9, 6-7 in SEC play.
It’s not fair to say Diallo was the reason Kentucky lost tonight, but his missteps created a domino effect of dumb mistakes. For the first time in a long time, Kentucky was playing like an actual basketball team, exploiting Auburn’s lack of size inside and creating opportunities with the best passing we’ve seen in weeks. Sadly, when things started to go wrong, they collapsed. Forced drives, stupid passes, and lackluster effort doomed the Cats in the final seven minutes, leading to the first four-game losing streak since the Billy Gillispie era.
There’s no shame in losing to the tenth ranked team in the country on their home court; however, letting that win fall through your fingers when it could have changed your season is beyond depressing — it’s demoralizing. Auburn was far from perfect tonight, shooting only 36.7% from the field thanks in part to Kentucky’s inspired defensive effort. The Cats stuck to the game plan and used their size in the middle, outscoring the Tigers in the paint 36-20 and winning the rebounding battle. Kentucky had Auburn on the ropes, but at the first sign of trouble, they panicked. The moment was just too big.
“Poor Hami,” Calipari said afterwards. “He’s making strides and getting better. He needed that three to drop. And that thing went [rim rattling sound]. We would have been up seven. It just didn’t go. I don’t know. I felt bad for him. I told him, just keep working man, but he just looked rattled out there and I just said, we’ve gotta win the game. You’ve got to worry about egos later when you’re just trying to win a game.”
Again, it’s not just Hami. What happened to Kevin Knox? Knox had 12 points in the first half but disappeared in the second, not attempting a field goal in the final 13 minutes. If you forgot Knox was on the court, you’re not alone; at times, he looked completely checked out, a troubling sign in the final stretch of the regular season. With Knox disengaged, Kentucky’s offense stalled, the Cats ending the game on another five minute stretch without a field goal.
So, where do we go from here? In the final seconds of the game, Auburn’s student section chanted “NIT,” a questionable jeer from a fanbase whose team hasn’t been in the NCAA Tournament since 2003, but a painful one all the same. Tonight’s loss doesn’t directly put Kentucky at risk of not making the tournament, but it does pave a grim path. Saturday, a feisty Alabama team will come to Rupp Arena led by freshman phenom Collin Sexton. From there, the Cats will travel to Arkansas before hosting a Missouri team that’s already beaten them. They’ll get a brief reprieve vs. Ole Miss before ending the season on Senior Day in Gainesville. Out of those five games, the only one I feel remotely good about is Ole Miss. That’s just where we are right now.
Right now, Kentucky is wounded prey just waiting for teams to pounce. To avoid total collapse, they must beat Alabama on Saturday. Unfortunately, they’ll have to get out of their own way to do it.