Kentucky escaped a rowdy Auburn Arena with arguably its biggest win of the season on Saturday. The entire starting five played well and the Cats controlled the scoreboard for most of the entire game, holding off multiple Auburn comeback attempts, to earn the 82-80 victory over sweaty Bruce Pearl and his Tigers. If there were any fans out there who still needed a reason to get excited about Kentucky this year, the win should have us all on the same page.
Let’s talk about it.
Keldon Johnson and Reid Travis bounced back with big games.
Considered to be two of Kentucky’s best and most consistent players throughout the better part of the season, Johnson and Travis were struggling entering Saturday’s game. Johnson had just hung a goose egg in the scoring column at Georgia, and Travis appeared to be having trouble against the length and athleticism of the SEC. They were each in a small slump by their standards, but they each bounced back at Auburn with two very good performances.
Johnson shared high-scorer honors with Tyler Herro at 20 points apiece, while Travis got back into double figures for the first time in four games with 17 points in addition to seven rebounds. John Calipari said, “I thought Reid Travis was really good today,” in his postgame comments.
Johnson also looked like he found his swagger after it appeared he was mentally checked out in Athens. He played with the confidence and attitude that has always been a big part of his game.
It’s great to have both back.
The Cats dodged a slow start.
My biggest concern before the game was how Kentucky would handle the first three or four minutes. Auburn Arena is a very dangerous environment and I worried a couple of early three-pointers by Jared Harper or Bryce Brown could put UK in a hole it couldn’t climb out of. But Kentucky avoided early trouble and even held the lead after the three or four minute stretch I worried about, and then after a little back and forth, went on a 19-2 run to extend its lead, a lead it would never lose. In fact, Kentucky led for over 32 minutes. It was a great end-to-end performance, even when Auburn did all it could to come back. Speaking of that….
Kentucky hit so many “shut the %*&!” up” shots.
So many times, Auburn hit a huge shot to cut the deficit, only for Kentucky to hit one right back on the other end. The crowd would erupt and the Auburn guards would get that confident smile as if they knew they were back in the game, but Kentucky would drain what I like to call the “shut the %*&! up” shot on the other end to silence the crowd and keep a comfortable lead. Two that come to mind are the Keldon Johnson three-pointer to counter Bryce Brown’s three-pointer, and Tyler Herro hitting a three-pointer to erase another Brown three. Both shots put the fans’ butts back in their seats and it happened time and time again. Those responses showed the Kentucky players weren’t bothered by the pressure and that’s a quality of a great team.
Auburn really missed Austin Wiley.
Not to take away from Kentucky’s big win, but it is worth noting Auburn was without its star big man, Austin Wiley. Wiley is a projected first-round NBA draft pick next summer and the Tigers’ leading rebounder and shot blocker. It’s hard to say if he would’ve changed the outcome of the game, but it certainly didn’t hurt the Cats’ chances having him on the bench, especially given the foul trouble Auburn faced inside. Wiley could’ve been a difference-maker, but that’s a big Auburn problem, not a me or you or Kentucky problem. Sorry about your luck, Bruce.
I’ll say it: Jared Harper and Bryce Brown are fun to watch.
Now that they’ve taken their L, I have no problem admitting Auburn’s two veteran guards are a lot of fun. That three Harper hit with 30 seconds left in the game, I feel like I’ve seen him hit it 20 times over the course of his career. He’s so clutch and I’m so glad he didn’t get the last look because I would’ve bet my entire bank account that he’d make it. I think Immanuel Quickley’s missed free throw was a blessing.
Then there’s Brown going 6-for-7 from outside, many of them contested and off-balance, to finish with 28 points. They’re a dangerous duo and Kentucky still managed to fly home with a win. Whew.
I’m going to break KSR company police and make a comment about the officiating.
That flagrant foul call was horrendous. I’m sorry the guy lost a little bit of blood on the fall but there is no way anyone can say PJ Washington wasn’t making a play on the ball. That’s a terrible call. Horrible call. Inexplicable call.
Luckily, Auburn wasn’t able to capitalize on the extra possession.
Ashton Hagans with a quiet but good game running the show.
Hagans had his hands full with the assignment of trying to contain Jared Harper and he didn’t match his 16 points per game output of the last five games, but he still made a huge impact with six assists and a career-high seven rebounds.
His best play of the game, though, was telling Keldon Johnson to, “Wake the f— up.”
It’s his team to run and he knows it. Cal has his next great point guard.
Kentucky is looking like a dangerous team as March gets closer.
The version of Kentucky we saw at Auburn on Saturday is as good as any team in the country. The entire starting five played well and the guys off the bench made big contributions, while playing in one of the toughest environments they’ll face all season against a hot-shooting team that wouldn’t go away. I’m not sure I’d trade rosters with any other team in the country right now because the Cats are gradually putting it all together and looking better and better as the season rolls on. Come March, they’re going to be very dangerous if they continue to come together and push forward.
This was a big statement win for their resume and for their confidence.