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Kentucky Basketball Outlasts Auburn: 5 Things to Know

It wasn’t always pretty, but a strong finish helped UK outlast Auburn and score win No. 15.

Auburn v Kentucky Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Winning ugly isn’t a trend you’d like to see, but at least the Kentucky Wildcats are doing it in early January.

After Tuesday’s close win over Vanderbilt, the Cats needed to grind out another close win over an undermanned squad. This time, it was Auburn giving UK more of a challenge than anticipated in a game that turned into a roller coaster throughout.

The first half was a shootout that saw Kentucky come out of with a 51-39 lead at halftime. Unfortunately, the second half turned into a foul-fest that saw 13 fouls called in the half’s first five minutes.

That and foul trouble by De’Aaron Fox (thanks to some bad calls) helped the Tigers stay within striking distance, thanks in large part to senior guard T.J. Dunans having a career day (career-high 22, 15 in second half).

But the Cats would finish strong and dominate the final minutes to come out with a 92-72 victory. Here are four things to know from the win:

Zay & Monk Clutch Again

The recipe for disaster appeared to be playing out in the second half as the Tigers got to within 60-56 with 12:33 left. That’s when Isaiah Briscoe took over and got UK back to a more comfortable lead.

Briscoe had a sequence in which he scored or assisted on 10 points after Auburn cut the lead down to four. one of those was a big three to stymie the Tigers’ momentum.

Auburn would keep fighting back, but Malik Monk also stepped up and made some huge plays down the stretch.

Those two combined for 34 points, 21 of which coming in the second half.

Hitting The Boards

It was pretty clear early on what UK has been practicing more this week: Hitting the offensive boards was UK’s best asset to begin this game, highlighted by a single possession that saw UK grab five offensive boards as a single possession before Malik Monk scored a layup.

UK finished this game with a 40-28 advantage on the boards, one of their best marks this season. You’d like to see UK be more efficient offensively, especially against a bad defense like Auburn, but this team is still too young to expect them to be consistent in every aspect in a single game.

And frankly, this team is too big, physical and athletic to not be dominating teams on the boards more like we saw glimpses of today.

Free Throws Still An Issue

Though the free throws haven’t been a consistent issue, it’s still something popping up enough to worry if it doesn’t change by March. The Cats missed two of their first seven attempts, which cannot happen against better teams, or else UK will fall behind quickly.

It didn’t get much better as UK finished 17-of-32 from the charity stripe, one of their worst marks this season. Just like offensive rebounding is something UK has clearly been working no more, free-throw shooting is something Calipari will need to work into practice more.

You can only improve so much shooting extra free throws before and after practice. Drilling them players in game-like situations in practice is something UK needs to do more of going forward.

Threes...Not So Much

After Kentucky shot just 1-of-9 from three-point range in Tuesday’s narrow win over Vandy, the Cats needed to respond against Auburn and show that was a fluke, not something becoming a habit.

The three-ball was viewed as the biggest weakness of this team coming into this season, and while that hasn’t proven to be true, it hasn’t exactly been a strength either (ranked 197th in three-point percentage coming into this game).

That ranking should go up after how hot UK was from deep in this game. The Cats hit seven of their first nine three-pointers, all of which coming in the first 12 minutes.

But it wasn’t Monk going nuts either. He hit two, but UK also got threes from Isaiah Briscoe, Mychal Mulder, De’Aaron Fox, and Wenyen Gabriel.

Even Dominique Hawkins knocked down a three in the first half (had 6 in his previous 20 games dating back to last year). The Cats finished 11-of-19 from deep and showed they can rely on the three-ball, even when the games get tight down the stretch.

Gabe Finding His Groove

Despite all of Wenyen Gabriel’s struggles this season, Calipari has continued to go with the freshman forward as the starting 4 in almost every game. We’ve seen flashes of Gabriel becoming an impact player on offense and defense, but not consistently enough to keep starting if it kept up.

Thankfully, the light appears to be coming on for Gabriel, who was the MVP of the first eight minutes. That included a pair of three-pointers, something he’s rarely hit this season (had 4 coming into this game).

Gabriel also delivered another highlight-reel block, something we’ve seen plenty of this year:

Gabriel was a pest on defense and made several big plays down the stretch as UK outlasted Auburn. He finished with a career-high 16 boards, which shows just how much of a force he can be on the boards. That was a big reason why UK dominated Auburn on the boards more than they have most of their opponents this season.

If he continues to make strides like we saw in this game, these Cats will be even more dangerous come March.

What were your big takeaways from this game?