After rattling off four consecutive victories – two being difficult tests on the road – the Kentucky Wildcats were unable to extend their winning streak to five, falling to the Auburn Tigers by a final score of 75-66.
But how did it all unfold?
Here are KSR’s top takeaways from Kentucky’s difficult road loss:
Given the environment, Kentucky had an uphill climb from the start
Year after year, Auburn Arena – one of the most hostile and difficult environments in the SEC – presents a major challenge for opposing teams. Factor in Kentucky coming to town, along with ESPN College GameDay following suit, the crowd was always going to play a factor in tonight’s matchup.
With over an hour until tip-off, the entire student section was filled from top to bottom, and it didn’t take long after for the general public to fill in the rest of the 9,121-seat venue.
From the opening tip to the final buzzer, the fans were deafening, rallying the Tigers back from deficits and building momentum with leads. The Wildcats had taken down Arkansas and Texas Tech in their first two matchups of this four-game stretch of Saturday road games, but they simply could not come out on top in attempt No. 3.
Kentucky threw the first punch
As crazy as the atmosphere was leading up to the game and as the highly-anticipated matchup unfolded, the Wildcats actually found a way to get things rolling right from the opening tip. Leading at one point 9-2, you could hear a pin drop in the sold-out Auburn Arena just two minutes into the game.
Unfortunately for Kentucky, that silence was short-lived.
… but Auburn responded
Immediately after Kentucky’s hot start to open the game, Auburn stormed back on a 12-1 run of their own to take a 14-10 lead just eight minutes into the game.
From there, we saw a game of runs, with Kentucky taking over to lead by as many as seven in the first half, followed by another Auburn lead just seconds before halftime.
After the break, neither team led by more than four points for the first 11 minutes and five for the first 17:24.
In a back-and-forth battle, it was the Tigers who found a way to fight through and come out with the victory.
Ashton Hagans had a repeat performance of the Elite Eight
While you can point out a few Wildcats who found a way to carve out relatively impressive performances against the Tigers, one who didn’t fit in that category was sophomore point guard Ashton Hagans.
In fact, Hagans’ performance was – unfortunately – eerily reminiscent of his outing against Auburn in the Elite Eight last March.
Tonight, the Cartersville, GA native finished with just five points on 2-5 shooting to go with three assists, zero rebounds, six turnovers, and five fouls in 21 minutes.
In the NCAA Tournament this past year, the sophomore guard finished with ten points (4-8 shooting), five rebounds, three assists, and a whopping seven turnovers in 38 minutes.
Bruce Pearl said after the game that he made it a point of emphasis to slow down both Hagans and essentially dared the other Wildcats to beat him, and unfortunately for Kentucky, it was a great decision.
In his time on the floor, Hagans committed costly turnovers and fouls at crucial, momentum-changing moments of the game. He struggled finding open teammates, forced bad passes, and was reckless at times driving into traffic. After six combined turnovers and fouls in the first half, Hagans was borderline unplayable at times, and it was reflected in the form of a season-low 21 total minutes.
Hagans has been one of Kentucky’s best players all season long, but tonight, he just didn’t bring it.
Immanuel Quickley and Tyrese Maxey were there to (slightly) make up for it
Though Hagans put forth one of the worst performances of his career, guards Immanuel Quickley and Tyrese Maxey did their best to make up for it, combining for 45 total points, nine rebounds, four assists, and two turnovers.
Time and time again, both Quickley and Maxey put the team on their backs and made clutch shots across the floor and at the free throw line. Combining for 19-22 from the charity stripe, the dynamic guard duo relentlessly attacked the basket, drew key fouls, and converted to keep the Wildcats in contention. When he wasn’t knocking down key free throws, Quickley also made several clutch baskets to close out the second half and nearly single-handedly willed the team to victory.
With a few key defensive stops and/or the absence of whistles on the other end of the floor (we’ll touch on that here in a bit), we could be talking about an entirely different outcome.
Have a game, EJ Montgomery
Is it possible for a player with just two points to be one of the most valuable players on the floor? EJ Montgomery certainly made an argument for it.
Finishing with two points (1-1 shooting), four rebounds, three blocks, and an assist in just 17 minutes of action, the sophomore forward quietly put together a strong performance on both ends of the floor, a positive sign of things to come.
On offense, Montgomery moved the ball, created opportunities for his teammates, and converted on his lone shot attempt at the top of the key. Defensively, the 6-foot-11 forward was active and aggressive for the majority of his time on the floor, contesting numerous shots in the paint even outside the three blocks he picked up.
John Calipari called on Montgomery to put forth long stretches of consistency rather than just a few minutes at a time, and he did that for the Cats this evening. It came in a losing effort, but it’s certainly something to keep an eye on as we hit the home stretch of the season.
Auburn shot 44 free throws, took 51 total shots
Ah, the most obnoxious stat of the night: the disparity between teams at the free throw line.
On the evening, Auburn was called for just 20 fouls compared to 28 for Kentucky, but even that seems tolerable on the surface level. What really stands out on the box score, however, is the fact that the Tigers took a whopping 44 free throws in the game compared to 24 for the Wildcats.
To make matters worse, Auburn shot 16 total free throws – 13 makes – in the final six minutes of the game compared to just four – all makes by Maxey – for Kentucky. The five point lead the Wildcats maintained with less than nine minutes to go flipped to as many as nine – the final deficit – in the game’s closing minutes. Eight of Auburn’s final twelve, including four of the final six, possessions resulted in opportunities at the line.
No matter the reasoning – John Calipari chalked it up to nothing more than physical play by the Tigers down the stretch – it’s pretty darn tough to win on the road taking 20 fewer free throws than the opposition.
Kentucky was outrebounded 42-28
Want to know another way to lose games? Get outrebounded by 14 on the glass overall and 11 on offense.
On the evening, Kentucky finished with just 28 rebounds as a team, including an abysmal 14 boards across the entire frontcourt. Individually, Nate Sestina and Keion Brooks Jr. combined for just three rebounds in 40 total minutes of action.
Auburn, however, finished with 42 total rebounds, including 17 alone on the offensive glass, compared to just six offensive rebounds for Kentucky.
Again, tough to win on the road – especially at Auburn – like that.
Time to go back to the drawing board and get ready for Mississippi State on Tuesday evening.