It’s a track meet every time you play the Auburn Tigers, and the Kentucky Wildcats found that out once again in their Elite Eight matchup in Kansas City.
And after coming out on top the first two times, the Cats couldn’t get it done the third time around, falling to the Tigers by a final score of 77-71.
Within the first two minutes and 15 seconds of the game, we saw four combined three-point attempts, five total jumpers, and six shots from both sides. The score at the time, 3-0 in favor of the Cats, didn’t indicate it at the time, but it showed exactly the kind of matchup we were going to be seeing.
After five straight misses from both sides, Kentucky forward Reid Travis got things going with an and-one, sparking a 7-0 run for the Wildcats. Auburn forward Danjel Purifoy stopped the bleeding temporarily with a three-point make, but the Cats kept pushing to extend the lead to ten with 12:13 remaining in the first half.
The Tigers continued to make small runs of their own, but the Cats continued to respond back, pushing the lead to ten or more on four separate times in the first half. After PJ Washington’s three-point jumper with 3:14 remaining to make it 30-20 in favor of Kentucky, Auburn went on a 10-2 run of their own to cut it to two.
UK freshman point guard Ashton Hagans finally stopped the run with a crucial three-pointer on the other end, giving Kentucky a 35-30 lead over Auburn at the half.
After the break, the Cats scored on a quick tip-in from Keldon Johnson, but the Tigers responded with an 8-0 run of their own following two Hagans turnovers to take their first lead of the game.
Auburn pushed their lead to three, but the Cats fought back on a 5-0 run to retake the lead, only to have the Tigers hit another big three to jump back on top.
With an odd combination of tough calls, foul trouble, turnovers, and streaky shooting, the back-and-forth continued for the remainder of the game. Auburn pushed the lead to as many as six, but Kentucky clawed back and tied the game with just 2:56 remaining.
After zero points from either side, PJ Washington grabbed his own rebound in the paint and put it back up for two to take a two-point lead with 57 seconds left. Unfortunately for the Cats, Tiger guard Jared Harper found an open lane and hit a layup to tie it up.
With the clock winding down, Auburn blocked two Kentucky shots in the paint, giving themselves one final opportunity to go for the win. Instead, Tiger forward Horace Spencer lifted for the contested shot and missed it long, sending the game to overtime with the game tied at 60 apiece.
In extra time, Harper scored the first two baskets for Auburn to push the lead to four. Hagans finished a tough bucket on the other end, but the Tigers kept responding with baskets, going up by as many as seven.
Kentucky cut it to three and two on two separate occasions, but the runs came too late for the Cats. When the foul game started, the Tigers converted, eventually pushing the lead to six as the clock struck zero.
After an impressive run to the Elite Eight, their journey would end in Kansas City, falling 77-71 in overtime.
Here are the key takeaways:
Auburn got hot in the second half
In the first half, the white-hot Tigers of late were fairly mortal from the perimeter, shooting just 3-11 from deep. In fact, Kentucky took (and made) more 3-pointers in the first half, knocking down 4-13 attempts.
Mind you, this comes after the Cats shot a combined 39 threes in their last three games (average of 13 per game).
After the break, however, the script flipped, as Auburn went 4-11 from three in the second half, while Kentucky went 0-5. They were able to get to get wherever they wanted on the floor and find open shots, while UK never got comfortable on offense, especially from the outside.
In the regular season, Kentucky’s offense seemed to fire on all cylinders against Auburn. Today, it sputtered all the way to a complete stop in the second half and overtime.
For the Tigers, their backcourt was absolutely dominant against the Wildcat guards, with Jared Harper and Bryce Brown combining for 50 points on 15-30 shooting and 5-13 from three.
Guard play was abysmal
Ashton Hagans finished with ten points, five rebounds, three assists, and a steal, but to say his actual on-court impact was poor would be an understatement. He finished with seven turnovers, making poor decision after poor decision with the ball in his hands.
When it comes to shooting, Hagans was incredibly indecisive, especially when the offense needed a scoring spark. He was hesitant when driving the lane and avoided jumpers unless it was absolutely necessary. His lack of comfort and confidence on the big stage bled into the rest of the backcourt.
Beyond Hagans, Tyler Herro finished with just seven points on 3-11 shooting and 1-5 from three. He added three rebounds, six assists, one block, and one steal, but Kentucky needed his offense today, and he simply didn’t provide it.
Immanuel Quickley had three points on 1-6 shooting, while Jemarl Baker didn’t get a shot off in four minutes of action.
Disappointing all around.
Missed free throws
One of the most frustrating aspects of the loss had to do with Kentucky’s missed opportunities at the line, especially considering this was statistically Calipari’s best free throw shooting team since arriving in Lexington.
Finishing the day shooting 12-21 at the stripe, the Cats left nine points on the table, including 2-5 in the second half and in overtime.
When you look at Auburn’s 18-24 finish at the line, including an incredible 11-11 from Jared Harper, it makes Kentucky’s struggles that much more crushing.
One more make from the line in regulation could have changed the entire outcome of the game. And then in overtime, PJ Washington’s miss on a one-and-one with the game tied just 30 seconds in could have turned into a two-point lead to get things rolling. Going two for two with 1:37 remaining could’ve cut the lead to four instead of five (Washington went one for two).
Quite a bit contributed to Kentucky’s loss, and the misses at the line were certainly part of that.
Kentucky found success down low
Like we saw in each of Kentucky’s two previous matchups with Auburn this season, it was apparent from the jump that the Wildcats had an advantage over the Tigers down low.
And for the most part, Kentucky converted.
All ten of UK’s first points on the board came on baskets in the paint or free throws made from fouls driving to the basket.
Before the break, PJ Washington nearly outscored Auburn’s starters on his own, scoring 15 first-half points compared to 20 total for the Tigers.
Overall, the Wildcat sophomore had a phenomenal game, finishing with 28 points (10-18 shooting and 2-4 from three), 13 rebounds, two blocks, and two steals. Washington went just 6-11 from the line, but his dominance elsewhere is likely the only reason why Kentucky stayed in the game as long as they did.
If you’re interested, you can watch just his highlights from the game here:
Outside of Washington, senior forward Reid Travis was extremely efficient in the paint, finishing with nine points on 4-5 shooting to go with six rebounds and an assist in a team-high 44 minutes of action.
On the wing, forward Keldon Johnson finished with 14 points (5-13 shooting), ten rebounds, three assists, one block, and one steal. He struggled with Auburn’s length at times, including one costly block in the paint with the time winding down in overtime, but he found success on some tough shots around the basket throughout the game.
With that, Kentucky’s season ends in Kansas City with a final record of 30-7. Instead of celebrating the win and packing for Minneapolis, we’re all left wondering what could have been.