Coming into a loaded weekend for college basketball, few foresaw the Kentucky Wildcats and Auburn Tigers having one of the best games.
After all, the 14th-ranked Cats have owned the 7-8 Tigers for much of the past decade, but you wouldn't have known that watching this slugfest.
Both teams came out with great energy and fight on both ends of the floor, and that led to a back-and-forth affair for much of the first half that was fun to watch. Despite the Tigers' clear limitations, they played with a no fear against these Cats and made several great plays and shots that you couldn't ask UK to defend any better.
In the end, Auburn made a lot of tough shots, more than you'll see most teams make, and though UK played a good game overall, it wasn't enough to overcome a great effort from the Tigers as they won 75-70.
Here are our quick takeaways from the game.
Great Defense and Effort Early On
Any time you've got a top-25 team on the road facing a sub-.500 team like Auburn, it's fair to expect the superior team to come out with an inferior effort early on. That's also been the case with Kentucky far too many times this season, but not this time.
The Cats came out with a great effort and were making just about every hustle play there was to be made. That resulted in several forced turnovers, blocked shots and easy points, which UK needed as nothing was coming easy on the offensive end.
Oh, and Alex got his usual monster block he gets at least one of in most games:
Alex Poythress seems to start every game with a monster block. #BBN @UKAthletics https://t.co/nDl0aqBjg4— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) January 16, 2016
Though I have to say his second-half block was better:
Now THAT is a block by Mr. Poythress! #BBN @UKAthletics https://t.co/wtLyURnsyb— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) January 16, 2016
Back to the first half, 24 of Auburn's 30 first-half points came from either the free-throw line or three-point range as the Tigers hit just 9-of-32 shots, including a woefully bad 2-of-22 on two-pointers.
I would argue the first half was as good of a defensive half they've had this season. Everything Auburn was getting offensively was on long three-pointers, most of which you just have to tip your hat to and move on.
Sure, UK could have contested some of them better, but this was a great half of basketball defensively that showed just how good this team can be on that end of the floor.
Adding to the above, UK made it a point to shut down Cinmeon Bowers after he showed little respect for the Cats. Poythress and Marcus Lee especially made it a point to deny just about everything Bowers threw up in the post, and the senior forward finished 1-of-9 shooting in the first half with three turnovers.
Yeah, it's safe to say Bowers got the Cats fired up for this one, and as good as Auburn played overall, that may have been the difference in UK leading at halftime vs. trailing.
It's been well-documented how much Derek Willis has...let's say "struggled" to reach his potential. He's done good things here and there, particularly on offense where he's knocked down some big threes for the Cats, but his defense and rebounding have left a lot to be desired.
That changed in a big way vs. Auburn. Willis had the game of his life (at least in a Kentucky uniform) as he recorded his first career double-double with 12 points and 11 boards.
Heck of a rebound and putback by Derek Willis. #BBN https://t.co/qRVEmM5X8t— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) January 16, 2016
Willis was also good on defense and not the kind of liability that's prevented him from getting more playing time. Because he finally stepped up on that end, he was rewarded with 31 minutes of playing time against the Tigers, and while UK lost, he was a big reason why the Cats were in it until the end.
BREAKING: Briscoe Hit 2 Free Throws...IN A ROW!
Confirmed: Briscoe hit two straight free throws pic.twitter.com/zGVWric4sm— PJordan (@PJordan_32714) January 16, 2016
It was truly a thing of beauty.
Poythress Eye Injury Helped Auburn Rally
It's become a given that UK is going to suffer at least one injury per game this season, and that continued today with Alex leaving early in the second half with an eye injury. He would miss about seven minutes of game action before returning to the court donning a pair of safety glasses.
It's hard to say this had a big effect on the game, but during that stretch, Auburn did cut UK's double-digit lead to one score while gaining momentum and never relinquishing it. While having Alex to help slow that down or even prevent it altogether would have been nice, this team has to find ways to close games better than they have now in two straight games.
Don't need to be an expert lip reader for this, kids. #johncalipari #kentuckywildcats #kentuckybasketball #... https://t.co/TT8chshYOi— PJordan (@PJordan_32714) January 16, 2016