Observations: Auburn 80, Kentucky 71
The Tigers have spent most of their basketball history looking up at Kentucky. But, in the biggest game in Arena history, the roles were reversed.
SG K.D. Johnson (Jacob Taylor/Auburn Athletics)
It started in 2016, when an Auburn team that would finish 11-20 came back from 12 down in the second half to slay eventual SEC champion Kentucky at home.
Six years later, Kentucky was the team staring up at Auburn — both in the rankings and the SEC standings. Auburn was in command of the title race, not the 51-time conference champions. Auburn was the team on the verge of becoming No. 1 in the country, not the winningest program in Division I men’s basketball all-time.
For the majority of its basketball history, Auburn beating Kentucky felt like David slaying Goliath.
On Saturday, Auburn was Goliath.
Sure, the hype around Saturday’s game was different. Students camped out in line overnight — some for more than 24 hours — for the right to get the floor seats for the most-anticipated regular-season game in program history. Ticket prices skyrocketed, even for standing room only spots, on the secondary market for a reason. The excitement was out of control, and the game itself showed why.
“Sometimes it's hard to have things that have such high expectations be lived up to,” Bruce Pearl said. “But I don't think there's any question that that game and that environment lived up to anybody's expectations.”
No matter what the terminally online segment of Big Blue Nation may tell you, that atmosphere had more to do with Kentucky’s present than its past. Kentucky was the highest-ranked team to play in Auburn Arena this season. Kentucky was the biggest competition in the early-season SEC championship race. Kentucky was the last team standing in Auburn’s way of a program milestone.
Auburn, right now, is the better basketball team. Case in point: When Kentucky raced out to a 10-point lead early, it had more to do with a high number of points off turnovers and second-chance buckets Auburn had allowed. When they played cleaner basketball, the top-tier talent and overall depth of the Tigers took control.
It would be dishonest to say that a first-half injury to Kentucky guard TyTy Washington — a freshman superstar Auburn wanted badly on the recruiting trail — didn’t affect the outcome.
“First of all, that Kentucky team that was shorthanded when TyTy went down — and then Wheeler kind of bothered his ankle a little bit or something,” Pearl said. “For those guys to rally and outplay us like they did in the first half tells you they're a championship team with a championship coaching staff.”
But the Tigers started chipping away before Washington’s exit and Wheeler’s multiple injury scares, and they did what they were expected to do at home.
For all of the deafening crowd noise throughout the day and the massive party at Toomer’s Corner after the game, Auburn’s players and coaches didn’t celebrate this monumental regular-season win like a title.
“I think we held serve,” Pearl said. “We did what we were supposed to do. This was an incredible opportunity to have Kentucky at home — both teams were playing very well. With TyTy going down and us being at home, we did what we were supposed to do. There wasn't a lot of water splashed around in our locker room. We didn't win a championship. We're not cutting down nets.
“We were good enough today to beat a really good team — a team that could be good enough to get to the Final Four. Now, we've got work to do.”
Yes, that definitely sounds like a Goliath.
Here are the Observations from Auburn’s 80-71 win over Kentucky, along with the Rotation Charts, Nerd Stats and the Quote of the Day.