Saturday, May 28

Kentucky Score vs. Auburn takeaways: No. 2 Tigers edge No. 12 Wildcats in pivotal SEC matchup

No. 2 Auburn will have an improved case to be No. 1 in the AP Top 25 for the first time in program history on Monday after the Tigers rallied from an early 10-point deficit to defeat No. 12 Kentucky 80-71 on Saturday at Auburn Arena. The victory is the 15th in a row for Auburn (18-1, 7-0 SEC), which got 19 points from Walker Kessler in front of a raucous home crowd.

Kessler’s dunk off a Jabari Smith drive with 1:28 left put the Tigers up 74-66 and helped stifle a persistent Kentucky team that fell to 15-4 (5-2) with the loss. The Wildcats lost star freshman guard TyTy Washington for the game to an ankle injury in the first half, and were without starting point guard Sahvir Wheeler for part of the second half after he suffered two heavy knockdowns. But despite the attrition, the UK pulled within four at the 3:20 mark after a three-pointer by Kellan Grady.

The next points came from Auburn’s star freshman Smith, who drilled a disputed fadeout at the 2:28 mark to put the Tigers up six. Smith and Kessler repeatedly made pivotal plays throughout the afternoon. Another Smith play that stood out was his blocking of British big man Oscar Tshiebwe’s layup attempt at the 4:55 mark that would have put the Wildcats within six points. He finished with 14 points, seven rebounds and two blocks.

Kentucky led 19-9 early in the game as the Wildcats kept Auburn off the charts by using a 15-5 lead in points from turnovers to take a 33-29 halftime lead. But a pair of dunks by Kessler in the final minute before halftime helped boost Auburn. From there, scoring flurries from KD Johnson and Wendell Green Jr. in the second half, combined with play from Smith and Kessler, helped Auburn pull away.

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key contributions

Smith and Kessler will receive a lot of attention for their performances down the stretch, and with good reason. The duo is one of the deadliest frontline tandems in the country. But the unsung heroes of Auburn’s victory were Johnson and Green, who caused runs in the second half after combining for just three points in the first half.

Johnson scored five straight points early in the second half to tie the game for the first time since 18:03 of the first half. He then followed that up with a 6-0 career streak that included a 3-pointer and three free throws after being fouled on a 3-point attempt. That streak turned a 58-52 lead into a 64-52 lead, Auburn’s biggest in the game, with 6:07 left.

Green hit two 3-pointers in a 25-second span between the 11- and 12-minute marks to break up a Kentucky run as the duo totaled 25 of Auburn’s 51 points in the second half. Green also had this sweet assist for Kessler among his five dimes for the game.

The SEC is for Auburn to lose

With the win, Auburn now holds at least a two-game lead over everyone in the SEC except Texas A&M, which is the only team other than the Tigers without two or more losses in conference play. The Aggies play Arkansas on Saturday night, and the outcome of that game could leave Auburn with a comfortable amount of separation before a game with Missouri on Tuesday.

The Tigers shared the SEC title with Tennessee in 2018, but are in prime position to claim a solo league crown for the first time since 1999. It would be simply the latest example of the program’s outperformance under Pearl after Auburn. was chosen to finish fifth in the league’s preseason poll.

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As Pearl told CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish after the game, “We’re a school of football, but we’re also a school of everything.”

Kentucky plagued by ‘what if?’ scenarios

The UK’s only two league losses have come away from home in games marred by injuries to key players, leaving Kentucky fans wondering what might have been had their key shooting guards stayed healthy. Wheeler was eliminated from the Wildcats’ 65-60 loss at LSU four minutes into the game after running into a hard screen.

Then on Saturday, Washington landed awkwardly and appeared to twist his ankle after a shot attempt at the 8:20 mark. He needed help to leave the pitch before walking to the locker room under his own power. However, he did not return. Compounding the problem, Wheeler missed a key three-minute stretch in the second half after running into another screen.

When it came out at the 11:28 mark, the UK trailed just 51-47. When he returned with 8:41 remaining, the Wildcats trailed 58-48. With no other UK-Auburn meetings scheduled, it’s a shame for the Wildcats that they won’t get another shot at Auburn when they’re fully healthy.

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