J’Von McCormick missed a 3-pointer, but Austin Wiley grabbed the rebound and got it back to him. The point guard missed a layup, but the big senior center grabbed the loose ball again and put it back on the rim.
It seemed to hang there, suspended above the floor at Rupp Arena, for a full second, maybe two. Then, it dropped to the hardwood.
Had that shot gone in, the game would have been tied at 55 points apiece with a little more than 10 minutes remaining in the second half. Instead, Kentucky took the ball the other way. Immanuel Quickley got fouled on a 3-point attempt and made all three free throws.
That was the story of No. 15 Auburn’s 73-66 loss on the road at No. 8 Kentucky on Saturday. The Tigers were right there with the Wildcats for most of the second half. They didn’t trail by more than seven at any point during the first 18-plus minutes after halftime.
But the visitors were never able to close the gap. They got within one possession 13 times during the second half, but they could not tie the game or take the lead, even when the home team went more than seven minutes without a made field goal.
Auburn (24-5, 11-5 SEC) missed 16 of its final 19 field goal attempts. Kentucky (24-5, 14-2) clinched the SEC regular-season championship with two games left to play. The Tigers fell to 2-29 all-time at Rupp Arena and 2-49 in Lexington.
“I thought we were good enough to win the basketball game. I thought we were good enough to beat those guys, and I think they’re the best team in our league,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said on the postgame radio broadcast. “We just did not make the plays that we needed to make to win the game.”
Here are three takeaways:
1. A home-road role reversal at the free-throw line.
The first game these two games played, a 75-66 Tigers’ win at Auburn Arena on Feb. 1, was decided at the free-throw line. Kentucky got whistled for 29 fouls, and the home team made 33 of 44 free throws. The visitors made just 20 of 24.
The second meeting on Saturday turned out the same way. And again, the home team won. Both teams got called for 23 fouls. Auburn made just 13 of 22 free throws, and the Wildcats made 27 of 32.
That’s how Kentucky was able to maintain its lead despite going more than seven minutes without a made field goal — it made eight free throws during that span.
“We put our hands on them, and they called fouls in coverage,” Pearl said. “If you’re going to do that, you just can’t guard them. Just can’t guard them. So we were in foul trouble the whole game, and that was a big factor.”
Particularly on the inside. Wiley played well with 10 points on 5-for-9 shooting, 12 rebounds, two blocks and a steal, but he picked up his fourth foul with 9:53 remaining in the second half. He didn’t check back in until the 3:26 mark.
2. Auburn couldn’t build on a rare fast start on the road.
For the first time in what felt like forever, the Tigers started strong on the road. They hit seven of their first 11 shots inside Rupp Arena, including 4 of 4 attempts from 3-point range. The visitors led by as many as nine points.
But they couldn’t keep it going. Auburn missed nine of its next 10 shots. Kentucky went on a 20-3 run to take a lead that it would not relinquish the rest of the game.
The Tigers did survive the onslaught. Devan Cambridge made a well-timed putback dunk and Isaac Okoro hit a 3 to spark a 14-9 run that brought the visitors back within three points at halftime.
But Auburn just couldn’t get shots to fall in the second half. It made only 9 of 32 overall, including an ugly 2 of 16 from beyond the arc. It made only 5 of its final 30 3-point attempts after making the first four.
“They defended us really well, and look, you got to make shots got to defend without fouling, and we weren’t able to. Kentucky did a good job,” Pearl told reporters in Lexington. “They made the adjustments. They played the way they needed to play and obviously held serve.”
Wiley and McCormick (13 points on 5-for-14 shooting) were the only two players on the team who finished in double figures. But McCormick had only one assist and missed five free throws.
Danjel Purifoy finished with nine points, but didn’t score after making three 3-pointers in the first five minutes. Okoro also scored nine, but made only 1 of 6 shot attempts.
3. This time, Kentucky did a better job getting inside.
One of the bigger stories of the first meeting at Auburn Arena was how much the Tigers dominated the paint. They attempted more free throws, made 12 of 28 two-point shots and outscored the Wildcats 24-18 inside the arc.
On defense, Wiley and McLemore held Kentucky big men Nick Richards, EJ Montgomery and Nate Sestina to just nine points on 4-for-12 shooting.
But the same wasn’t true at Rupp Arena. The Wildcats attempted more free throws, made 20 of 38 two-point shots and outscored the Tigers 34-24 in the paint. The visitors made only 11 of 27 attempts from inside the arc, choosing instead to settle for 3-pointers.
“I felt like we needed to shoot the ball from 3, because look, when you go in the paint in here, they’re big, they block shots, and we don’t get to the foul line nearly as much here,” Pearl said. “We felt like we needed to do some things on the perimeter.”
Richards fared much better the second time around, scoring 14 points on 5-for-5 shooting despite being limited to just 19 minutes due to foul trouble. Montgomery and Sestina chipped in 16 points combined.
Auburn again slowed down point guard Ashton Hagans, holding him to just four points on 2-for-13 shooting, but Immanuel Quickley and Tyrese Maxey scored 18 and 17 points, respectively, despite making only 1 of 8 3-point attempts.
“We gave up too many points in the paint, got behind in the post,” Pearl said. “We battled, we competed, but we didn’t play well enough to win.”