Tonight, on the Plains of Auburn, the Kentucky Wildcats escaped a game and aggressive Auburn Tigers team that looked for a long time like they would take the #2-ranked Wildcats right down to the wire with a chance to do what the Indiana Hoosiers did -- beat UK at the buzzer.
This game requires a mandatory truism: It was much closer than the score. Auburn played a fantastic contest, and they deserve our respect. Resist the temptation, dear brother or sister of the Big Blue Nation, to blame this exclusively on Kentucky's play. Yes, Kentucky probably took Auburn a bit lightly tonight, and who can blame them given the Tiger's performance in the last two games?
Auburn came to play tonight, and gave Kentucky all they wanted. Perhaps if UK had been as wired as they were against Louisville or North Carolina, this game wouldn't have been so competitive, but that is an absolutely unrealistic expectation These UK players are young, and they are used to winning. Tonight, they found out that talent can be equalized by passion, raw effort, and good execution. Tonight, the Tigers brought all this, and this game illustrates in stark relief the trouble that Kentucky is going to face on the road this season, as they do every season -- rowdy crowds, zone defenses, and highly motivated opponents.
Tonight's postmortem is going to be a bit more stream-of-consciousness than a structured affair, so please bear with me. I am disinclined to present a game ball tonight, because every player played about the same -- well at times, and badly at times. The Wildcats, in one sense, were very much together tonight in that none of them hustled quite as much as they should have, all of them were out of position more than once, and each of them stepped up and did big-boy things that helped win the game. In essence, this was perhaps the most complete "team" effort we have seen, even though many possessions, both offensive and defensive, were poorly executed by any standard.
Part of being a great team is winning ugly in the face of an unexpected challenge, and this was really the first time Kentucky has had to do that all season. Auburn did a great job of taking Kentucky out of their comfort zone. I have never seen Marquis Teague look more uncertain running the point, and that's part of the beauty of what Auburn was able to do.
I haven't seen Davis struggle so much on the defensive glass, or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist seem so unable to will the ball in. Doron Lamb struggled with back screens as he has all year, but he also made some big shots and got more rebounds than he has been recently. Terrence Jones looked pretty much like he is back in focus, even if his fingers still seem to be bothering him (which, given the nature of his injury, is not surprising). Darius Miller had some issues with fouling and involvement, but also made some huge shots.
This was just one of those tough games we get every year in the SEC. Last year, Kentucky managed to lose most of these until very late in the year. The fact that the 'Cats won this one in a pitched battle until the last two minutes or so is a good sign going forward, and I am more encouraged by this effort than not.
To put it in John Calipari's terms, the team really battled in the second half after letting Auburn think they should be ranked somewhere in the top 25 in the first. About the middle of the second half, the Wildcats realized that this thing really could go sideways if they didn't start finding a way, and despite a moment or two of panic, they stuck together as a team and found a way to will the game into double-digits in the face stiff and determined resistance.
In sum, Wildcats fans, this was a good win. We learned something about this team tonight, and it was more good than bad.
Next up: The Tennessee Volunteers in Knoxville on Saturday afternoon.