Tshiewbe ahead of UK’s showdown at No. 2 Auburn: ‘We fight till the end’

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In previewing Kentucky’s highly anticipated game at Auburn on Saturday, Oscar Tshiebwe answered media questions for seconds less than 12 minutes Friday. He used the word “fight” 23 times.

“The mindset for us right now is that we’re going to war …,” Tshiebwe said. “It’s not going to be easy. We just need to go out there and fight like people go fight for their countries. They’re not going to go out there and just play around. They’re going to go out there, like, willing to die. We’re willing to die to win Saturday.”

Assuming he meant that in the figurative sense, Tshiebwe captured the outsized importance associated with this game. On Thursday, Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl said the winner would move into position to win the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship.

As someone who embraces historical significance, Pearl has more than that as a motivational tool for Saturday.

Gary Parrish of CBS Sports said that Auburn could be playing for the program’s first No. 1 ranking in The Associated Press Top 25 poll.

In this week’s poll, Auburn received more first-place votes (36) than Gonzaga (25). But Gonzaga had the No. 1 ranking because it had more overall points (1,486-1,482).

Parrish saw a victory over No. 12 Kentucky as moving “a few voters in Auburn’s direction, especially considering how Kentucky’s been playing.”

Auburn’s No. 2 ranking matches its best position ever in the AP poll.

Auburn (17-1 overall and 6-0 in the SEC) would seem to have the ability to match strength against strength with Kentucky (15-3 and 5-1).

Oscar Tshiebwe leads 12th-ranked Kentucky in scoring (16.1 points per game), rebounding (14.8), steals (1.5) and blocks (1.4).
Oscar Tshiebwe leads 12th-ranked Kentucky in scoring (16.1 points per game), rebounding (14.8), steals (1.5) and blocks (1.4).

Against Tshiebwe, Auburn has a pair of big men. Walker Kessler, who is listed at 7-foot-1 and 245 pounds, has an average of 4.28 blocks. That ranks second in Division I. An opponent a month ago, Jamarion Sharp of Western Kentucky ranks first at 4.65 per game.

Jabari Smith, who is listed at 6-10 and 220, is Auburn’s leading scorer (15.8 points) and a 43-percent three-point shooter.

“So, Kentucky will be playing against a team that’s got a better NBA prospect than any NBA prospect on Kentucky’s roster right now,” Parrish said of Smith. “He’s really special.

“If you’re putting together a list of teams that have what it usually takes to win a national championship, Auburn would have to be on that list.”

Tshiebwe sounded ready to compete. He noted the importance of limiting lobs to Kessler and Smith, then he added, “I don’t think they’ll be able to stop me, too.”

With Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington giving Kentucky a double barrel of eye-catching point guard play, Auburn counters with Wendell Green. Green, who transferred to Auburn from Eastern Kentucky, has the best assist average in SEC play (5.7 per game). His assist-to-turnover ratio is second only to Washington.

When asked about the matchups at center and point guard, UK Coach John Calipari said, “They’re all tough matchups.”

Of Kessler and Smith, he said, “They’re long. They’re big.”

Calipari added that “Green is good with the ball and shoots it.”

Green has made 40.6 percent of his three-point shots. He’s averaging 13.1 points and had a better than two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio (91-to-40).

While the game is a sellout, Kentucky should be accustomed to performing under hostile conditions. An example came earlier this week at Texas A&M. Kentucky prevailed despite the crowd.

Of that 64-58 victory, Tshiebwe said, “winning really means a lot for us. That means we have a good team.”

He saluted UK’s perseverance in coming back from a 13-point first-half deficit.

“We did not let the rope go,” he said. “We’re not that type of people when things get hard, they just let it go. We fight till the end.”

As he did after the game, Calipari again spoke of the good feeling that comes with winning when not shooting well (36.2 percent and only four of 18 from three-point range).

“I’m ecstatic,” the UK coach said. “Because you need to know when you don’t shoot it well, you can still win. … That means you have fighters on the court.”

When asked if Saturday’s game could benefit Kentucky come NCAA Tournament time, Calipari said he likes neutral site games for that reason.

As for Saturday, “these kids toughen you up …,” he said. “Teams are going to stop you from doing what you want to do. And it becomes players making plays. And if you don’t have anybody on your team (capable of making plays), it’s hard to advance. You’ve got to have a couple guys on your team, and it appears we do.”

Calipari singled out Washington as one such UK player.

“We’re going to go out there and fight,” Tshiebwe said of Saturday’s game. “And we’re going to find out … who is the better team.”

Saturday

No. 12 Kentucky at No. 2 Auburn

When: 1 p.m.

TV: CBS-27

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Kentucky 15-3 (5-1 SEC), Auburn 17-1 (6-0)

Series: UK leads 96-22

Last meeting: UK won 82-80 on Feb. 13, 2021, in Lexington

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