The Southeastern Conference champion game many believed Big Blue Nation deserved came three weeks later in Kansas City, as the Auburn Tigers and Kentucky Wildcats tipped off their Elite Eight matchup with the winner advancing to next weekend’s Final Four.
With the Tigers’ Chuma Okeke sidelined by an ACL injury, the Wildcats’ suddenly had a clear advantage in the painted area. Specifically, star sophomore PJ Washington stepped up to set the tone in the first half.
Washington followed up his 16-point performance on Friday with 15 first half points against the Tigers, aiding in Kentucky taking a 35-30 lead at halftime.
However, Bruce Pearl and his Tigers wouldn’t go away.
Auburn took their first lead of the afternoon less than three minutes into the second half, fueled by a 10-2 burst coming out of the break. The two SEC clubs clawed back and forth for the remainder of the second half as Auburn missed a desperation three to lead to overtime.
In the extra five minutes, Auburn simply made more efficient plays and executed with the Tigers on top as the clock struck zero, 77-71.
Kentucky’s Run Falls Short of Final Four
Head coach John Calipari and his Kentucky Wildcats saw their season end on Saturday at the hand of their SEC foe Auburn Tigers. Kentucky swept the season series against Auburn, going 2-0 and winning by a margin of 14.5 points.
However, this postseason, ‘twas Auburn who will be advancing to the Final Four.
Kentucky ends their season with a 30-7 record, notching the fifth best season (statistically) throughout the Calipari era. With Keldon Johnson, PJ Washington and Tyler Herro expected to depart for this summer’s NBA draft, next season’s roster projects to have yet another haul of turnover.
However, with the abundance of talent coming in and multiple Wildcats’ currently enrolled expected to return, Kentucky should be right in the mix of National Title favorites once again.
Hagans Shrinks in Defeat
Ashton Hagans has been Kentucky’s roller coaster this season, going from exceptional basketball to some of the worst point guard production Kentucky has seen during the Calipari era.
While the freshman prospect had a few promising games during the month of March, he had arguably his worst on Saturday.
Hagans turned the basketball over seven times while handing out just three assists and scoring only 10 points. He also let up a team-high 26 points to Jared Harper, including six in overtime.
Kentucky wins and loses as a team, but Hagans’ lack of efficiency production certainly hurt this team, not to mention his NBA Draft stock. It became painfully clear in the postseason that he needs another year at UK. We can only hope he realizes this and he’s back leading the Wildcats’ backcourt next season.
Washington Stands Alone in Loss
PJ Washington’s absence during the first round of this spring’s NCAA tournament was more than concerning for the Big Blue Nation. The sophomore’s foot injury was highly speculated over and there were many doubts that he’d ever play in a Kentucky uniform again.
After a sound 16-point return against Houston, all-be-it from the bench, Washington stepped up even higher on Saturday against Auburn.
He scored 15 points in the first half and finished with a double-double of a game-high 28 points and 13 rebounds as the lone Wildcat to be efficient at both ends of the court on Saturday. Washington returned for a sophomore season to improve his overall game and did so in every facet.
Ultimately, it wasn’t enough to account for the lack of scoring from his teammates, but Washington solidified himself as one of the best players to come through Lexington in the John Calipari era.
Kentucky’s Herro Meets Kryptonite
Coming into the season, Tyler Herro was the four-star recruit many analysts overlooked. However, his play for one of the country’s most prolific programs quickly boosted his jump onto the scene as one of the nation’s best two guards at both ends of the basketball court.
However, on Saturday, Herro met his match in Kentucky’s narrow defeat against Auburn.
Herro Picked up two fouls in the first half, throwing him off rhythm for the entirety of the 40-minute outing. Kentucky’s star guard scored just seven points on 3-11 shooting from the floor, while Bryce Brown (his defensive assignment) filled the basket for 24 points.
Herro will be remembered as one of the program’s most exciting players (rightfully so), but what was expected to be his final game as a Wildcat will certainly be a performance to forget.