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Kentucky beat Auburn and won the SEC because of toughness, execution, and getting exactly what John Calipari called for

When Kentucky plays like a complete team and their secondary pieces contribute in a positive manner, Saturday’s victory over Auburn may not be the only title the Cats win this season.

Jason Marcum - Sea of Blue

In the last 18 games, Kentucky has lost just twice and one of those defeats came on Feb. 1 to an Auburn team, in front of a raucous crowd, that absolutely bullied the Wildcats to the tone of a 14-rebound advantage on the glass (42-28) and made 33 of 44 free throws in a 75-66 win to hand Kentucky their fifth loss of the season.

After a dunk from Auburn center Austin Wiley just outside of the under-12 media timeout on Saturday to push the Tigers’ lead over Kentucky to nine (20-11), the Cats hunkered down to score 29 of the final 46 points in the first half on their way to winning the school’s 49th SEC regular season championship in a 73-66 revenge victory to clinch the No. 1 seed in next week’s SEC Tournament.

“That was another rock fight,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said after his team’s eighth consecutive win to clinch the regular season title for the sixth time during his tenure in Lexington.

“That was, ‘When you went up for a rebound, you were feeling stuff.’ Something in your neck, something in your back ... when you were coming off a screen or you were driving, there wasn’t like, a clear lane, and we proved to us in that kind of game where it’s, ‘We’re lettin’ it go’, we can perform.”

The team Kentucky put out on the floor a month ago was not the same team that took the Rupp Arena floor on Saturday afternoon. Despite the early foul trouble for Nick Richards (two fouls inside the of the first seven minutes), the Cats muscled their way into a 38-38 draw on the glass against the Tigers and shot 27-for-33 from the charity stripe themselves.

Saturday was more than just the rebounding battle or the amount of free throws either team shot. Kentucky’s 16th win in the last 18 games proved they can play with and beat anybody because it wasn’t just about #BigGameMaxey, a surprising EJ Montgomery performance or another second-half surge from Immanuel Quickley. The Cats won as seemingly a full unit for what felt like the first time all season in a big spot.

Kentucky’s other “core four” was just as important with the Cats trailing early

For weeks now, Calipari has spoke on the subject of how far Kentucky can go with the way they’ve been playing for the last month-plus.

In some form or fashion, he harps on the same subject. If Montgomery, Nate Sestina, Keion Brooks Jr. and Johnny Juzang can contribute to the cause, Kentucky can play in April.

On Saturday, the “others” contributed to the tune of 20 points and 11 rebounds and helped spell Kentucky during a first-half stretch where they went from down nine to up eight (31-23) with 6:05 to play in the half.

Montgomery played 31 minutes and committed just one foul. Juzang didn’t contribute in the box score like in the Tennessee matchup, but being able to spell Kentucky’s big three guards will be more than crucial when the big tournament starts.

Keion Brooks Jr. played his best game since the win at Arkansas with energy and a ruggedness to him, while Sestina canned a triple from the left wing with 50 ticks left to push Kentucky’s lead back to seven (40-33) and scored 11 off the bench himself in his best minutes since the win at LSU.

Tyrese Maxey does it again on a big stage

It’s safe to say that the bigger the game, the better Tyrese Maxey tends to play this season.

Similarly to the win over Florida, Maxey carried the offensive load early to the tone of 12 of Kentucky’s 40 points in the first stanza with three rebounds and two assists. He’d finish with 17 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals in 37 minutes.

Immanuel Quickley did his thing with another big-time second half performance (12 of his 18 points and eight of his team-high 12 (!) rebounds) to further cement his status as the SEC Player of the Year award front-runner, but in the biggest games for Kentucky this season, Maxey has stepped his game up and with the postseason almost here, that kind of ‘clutch gene’ can win you a game or two in March.

Another note with Maxey: Calipari put the ball in his hands a lot more down the stretch of the game with Hagans still in a funk, at least shooting around the rim-wise. He had Kentucky’s highest usage percentage (28.3) against Auburn with a floor percentage of 50.3 while registering a fouls drawn rate of 10.5, just .6 off of Quickley’s team-leading 11.1, who cashed home all 11 freebies he hit.

At this point, Nick Richards’ foul situation and Ashton Hagans’ play are the two biggest concerns for Kentucky

In the last four games, Nick Richards has picked up 15 fouls and has scored just 40 points in that span. Times have changed when 40 points in four games seems disappointing for the junior big man.

Ashton Hagans missed 11 of his 13 shot attempts against Auburn with a handful of them coming around the rim.

And yet, Kentucky’s still winning games.

Sure, Richards picking up two fouls in the first seven minutes and sitting with four fouls with over seven minutes to play wasn’t ideal, but the All-American candidate finished with 14 points, three rebounds and this emphatic block to help seal the SEC title.

This isn’t the same Nick Richards and we’ve learned that this season.

Still, if Kentucky is heading for a deep tournament run in Nashville and in the NCAA Tournament, the big man from Jamaica has to stay on the floor. Sometimes, the way games are officiated can affect this, as it did on Saturday, but Kentucky needs him. Just his presence alone has helped Kentucky stay afloat after a poor start to the season for their standards to where they are now.

As for Hagans, it’s been rough. Really rough at times.

But, as someone who thought he could be the one to overtake Richards in the SEC POY race and not Quickley, he did what Calipari wanted him to on Saturday. Hagans played 34 minutes and committed just one turnover with five assists.

“I know Ashton went 2-for-13, but when he goes five assists, one turnover, three steals and defends like (he does), we will win,” Calipari said. “He can go 2-for-13. The only person it bothers is him. His goes down, he says, ‘I can’t believe I missed that dunk’ ... forget it. For our team, it really doesn’t matter. If you defend, if you get five, six, seven assists and one turnover and you do the rebounding and all the stuff you’re doing, we’re going to win.”

Although it seems easy to beg to differ with Calipari (and personally, I blame none of you for thinking that), he’s sort of has a point.

Nobody’s saying Hagans can miss 11 shots every night out or even take 11 shots in a game. But, even on nights where he’s not scoring from anywhere on the floor, he’s still important to Kentucky’s bigger title chances. Plays like this with seven minutes to go against a team that went to the Final Four last season (and is still the last team to beat you) with the conference crown on the line are why you need him on the floor.

(Remember the note about Maxey handling the ball more late in the game? There’s your outlet to ease some pressure off Hagans feeling like he has to do it all sometimes.)