Kentucky lost, but it did not concede Saturday.
After an 80-71 defeat at Auburn, players spoke of fate intervening rather than a superior opponent winning.
As in the loss at LSU earlier this month, guards TyTy Washington and Sahvir Wheeler were hurt in the game. This helped another opponent rally from a first-half deficit. This time Auburn came back from 10 points down.
“That’s not an excuse,” said Kellan Grady, who along with Wheeler led UK with 17 points each. “I think we had the potential to win this game. Looking back, I think we’ll recognize that, and think this one slipped away.”
Auburn built its own 10-point leads in the second half, the last at 68-58 going into the final four minutes.
Once more, Kentucky did not stop competing. UK got as close as 68-64 on a corner three by Grady with 3:19 left.
But Auburn scored on its next three possessions — the two free throws by Allen Flanigan that made the Tigers 21 of 23 from the line in the second half — to keep Kentucky at bay.
Kentucky fell to 15-4 overall, 5-2 in the Southeastern Conference and winless in its last eight games against opponents ranked No. 2 in the country. UK’s last victory against a No. 2 team came against Maryland on Dec. 12, 1998.
Auburn, now 18-1 overall and 7-0 in the SEC, won its 15th straight home game. The Tigers put themselves in position for the program’s first No. 1 ranking by the Associated Press.
Two turnovers in the final minute snuffed out the possibility of Kentucky completing a counter rally.
“It’s no secret that we’re one of the best teams in the country,” Grady said. “I think that’s well recognized around the basketball world. Although we didn’t play well enough to win …, we showed that we’ve got a lot of collective fight. …
“We want to be our best in March. We’ll get better from it.”
UK led by as many as 10 points inside the first eight minutes. The lead was 33-25 going into the final minute, but back-to-back dunks by Walker Kessler reduced Kentucky’s halftime lead to 33-29.
“I loved how we started the game,” UK Coach John Calipari said. “We were the aggressor. … Hated the end of the half. Hated it!”
Another disquieting flashback came with 8:20 left. Washington hit a floater, but he came down with his left foot on one of Oscar Tshiebwe’s legs.
Washington needed help to leave the court. He did not return to the game.
Besides being UK’s second-leading scorer (14.2 points), Washington’s loss was especially hurtful against an opponent capable of switching on defense, thus making one-on-one skill more important, Calipari said.
“If he needs to get a basket, he gets it,” the UK coach said of Washington. “We don’t have those guys. Sometimes guys think they can do it, and in the game they don’t do it.
“That’s what he does. He goes and gets them.”
The second half saw Wheeler run blindly into a back pick as he did at LSU. This time Auburn big man Walker Kessler set the pick. As on the play at LSU, the television analyst — this time Bill Raftery of CBS — said the pick was legal and Tshiebwe should have shouted out a warning to Wheeler.
“I screamed again …,” Tshiebwe said. “It was too loud. He did not hear again. …
“It was a good screen. I’m not going to say anything about that. … I’ve just got to do a better job of screaming.”
Calipari said he needed to watch the tape to evaluate Tshiebwe’s response.
“If there’s a (teammate) up there screaming smack-smack-smack!, (Wheeler) will back off and go under (the screen),” Calipari said.
After going to the locker room, Wheeler returned for the game’s final eight-plus minutes. In that time, he again ran into Kessler, this time on offense when the Auburn big man joined a trap on the UK point guard.
“Look, at the end of the day, I’m coaching somebody’s child,” the UK coach said. “And if he can’t play this week and TyTy can’t play this week, if they’re hurt (and) they can’t play, now you’ve got other guys who’ve got a chance to step up and show what they are. Or what they’re not.”
Mississippi State at No. 12 Kentucky
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday