Five things you need to know from Kentucky’s 80-71 loss to Auburn

·4 min read
Alex Slitz/aslitz@herald-leader.com

Five things you need to know from the No. 12 Kentucky Wildcats’ 80-71 loss to the No. 2 Auburn Tigers in SEC men’s basketball at Auburn Arena in Alabama:

1. Injuries devastate Kentucky backcourt again. For the second time on the road in the SEC against a ranked foe in 2021-22, injuries to point guards substantially reduced UK’s chances of winning.

After a hot start, UK was leading No. 2 Auburn 25-16 with 8:21 left in the first half when Wildcats star freshman TyTy Washington suffered a left ankle injury while landing after making a runner in the lane.

Washington never returned to the game.

Even without its standout freshman, the Cats were in the game — until another injury sidelined their other point guard.

Five straight points from Sahvir Wheeler had UK down 48-47 with 11:38 left.

However, Wheeler again ran full speed into an opponents’ pick — this time set by Auburn big man Walker Kessler — and was shaken up enough he had to leave the game.

With both of Kentucky’s primary ballhandlers out, Auburn scored the final seven points of what became a 13-3 run to open a 58-48 lead.

Wheeler then returned to the game, but the separation created while he was out proved too great for UK to overcome.

The same script, with Wheeler (again injured from running into a pick) and Washington unable to finish the game due to injuries, played out in Kentucky 65-60 loss at then-No. 21 LSU on Jan. 4.

It is not unreasonable to think Kentucky could have won both games if it could have kept its guards on the court.

2. Fouling three-point shooters kills the Cats. Not once, not twice, but three times in the second half, Kentucky defenders were called for fouling Auburn players attempting treys.

The Tigers fully made UK pay.

With 14:51 left in the game, Kentucky’s Jacob Toppin fouled Auburn star freshman Jabari Smith on a three-point try.

Smith swished all three subsequent free throws to push the Tigers ahead 41-40 — their first lead since 7-6 early in the game.

There was 10:46 left when UK freshman Bryce Hopkins — in the game because of Wheeler’s injury — fouled Auburn’s Jaylin Williams on a shot attempt from behind the arc.

Williams, too, cashed all three foul shots to push Auburn ahead 54-47.

Only 6:07 remained in the game when Davion Mintz fouled K.D. Johnson on a trey attempt.

The transfer from Georgia cashed in another three free throws to push Auburn to a 64-52 lead.

Those nine points UK gave up by fouling three-point shooters ended up being the Wildcats’ margin of defeat in the game.

3. EKU transfer plays big for Auburn. Ex-Eastern Kentucky University point guard Wendell Green had a major second-half impact for Auburn.

After going scoreless in half one, the 5-foot-11, 175-pound sophomore scored 11 points after halftime.

When Auburn used an 13-3 run to break away from a 45-45 tie, Green drained a pair of three-point shots. The first, at 11:53, pushed the Tigers ahead 48-45. The second, at 11:28, gave Auburn a 51-47 advantage.

Green wasn’t done. He assisted on a pair of Walker Kessler dunks that ended with Auburn ahead 58-48 with 8:41 left.

For the game, the ex-Eastern star finished with 11 points and five assists.

4. More UK struggles vs. ranked opposition. There is no disgrace in losing on the home floor of the No. 2 team in the country, especially in the context of being without your two primary ballhandlers for crucial parts of the game.

Nevertheless, a loss to a ranked foe does continue an unhappy trend for Kentucky.

The Wildcats are now 1-3 this season vs. foes ranked in the AP Top 25. Over the past two seasons, UK is 2-8 against ranked opponents — with both victories over Tennessee.

More importantly, Kentucky is now 3-3 this season in games the NCAA regards as “Quad 1,” (in other words, the most challenging contests.

Entering Saturday’s play, seven of the nine teams ranked ahead of Kentucky (which was No. 10) in the NCAA’s NET Rankings had more Quad 1 wins than UK.

5. Bruce Pearl joins select list vs. UK. With the victory, Auburn’s head man has become the 12th coach with double-digit wins over UK.

In his stints as head man at Tennessee (2006 through 2011) and Auburn (since 2014-15), Pearl is now 10-16 vs. Kentucky.

Pearl went 4-9 vs. UK as UT head man, and is now 6-7 vs. the Cats at Auburn.

The coaches who have beaten Kentucky at least 10 times (in order of wins): 1. Dale Brown 18; 2. Billy Donovan 17; 3. Bob Knight, Ray Mears 15; 5. Roy Skinner 14; 6, Dean Smith 13; 7. Kevin Stallings 12; 8. Don DeVoe, Wimp Sanderson 11; 10. C.M. Newton, Roy Williams, Bruce Pearl 10.

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