The Auburn Tigers took advantage of a depleted Kentucky backcourt to take control of the SEC race after beating the Wildcats 80-71 at Auburn Arena.
Kentucky led by double digits in the first half and looked ready to upset the No. 2-ranked Tigers in front of a sell out crowd. However, bad luck struck again for the Wildcats on the injury front, as TyTy Washington had to exit the game in the first half with an ankle injury, while Sahvir Wheeler missed valuable minutes in the second half after getting drilled on a high ball screen for the second time this season.
Wheeler, who had a similar incident at LSU, returned around the 7:00 mark, but the Tigers took advantage of the absence of the Kentucky guards to pull away over the final 10 minutes to improve to 7-0 in conference play in the only meeting between the two schools this season.
Early on, it looked like the Wildcats were up to the challenge after going on a 13-0 run that included two free throws and a three-pointer from Kellan Grady, two layups and a floater from Wheeler and a stick back from Oscar Tshiebwe to take a 17-7 lead.
Washington extended the lead at the 8:20 mark after driving the lane and scoring over Auburn’s 7-foot-1 center Walker Kessler to give the Wildcats a 25-16 advantage.
Unfortunately, Washington landed awkwardly on the finish and missed the rest of the game with a left ankle injury.
The first half ended with a steal and 360 degree dunk by Jacob Toppin but back-to-back dunks by Kessler cut into the Kentucky lead as the Wildcats held on 33-29 at halftime.
Auburn was in control throughout the second half and finished 24-of-29 from the free throw line to pave the way for a likely No.-1 ranking next week under Coach Bruce Pearl.
Wheeler and Grady led the Wildcats with 17 points each, while Tshiebwe added 16 points and 14 rebounds.
The school of hard knocks has seemingly locked in on Sahvir Wheeler this season, who spent much of the game either on the floor, or tending to an injury in the locker room.
The 5-foot-9 point guard played with the heart of a lion and was outstanding on both ends of the court. In fact, every time Kentucky needed a bucket, it was Wheeler who stepped up with a layup, jumper or assist to give the Wildcats a fighting chance.
But once again, losing Washington put too much pressure on the Kentucky guards as the Wildcats were just 5-of-12 from three-point range and made some crucial turnovers that included multiple shot clock violations within the half-court offense.
The Wildcats, now 15-4 (5-2), return to action on Tuesday night at 9:00 pm ET against Mississippi State at Rupp Arena.