At different times this season, opponents have pestered Auburn by refusing to go away, but in Rupp Arena on Saturday afternoon, it was the Tigers who took that role on — at least for a bit.
Maybe it was the experience of playing in Madison Square Garden earlier this season. Perhaps reflecting on wins over UConn and Oklahoma reminded Bruce Pearl’s young team it could compete against some of the country’s best programs.
Regardless of the key, Auburn traveled to Lexington and battled John Calipari’s sixth-ranked Kentucky team hard for most of the afternoon.
The Tigers kept it close through the first half and chipped away at leads the Wildcats built, playing with poise and confidence (largely thanks to senior T.J. Dunans).
Eventually, however, after several key Auburn starters picked up multiple fouls, Pearl’s squad no longer could withstand the onslaught of talent and scoring Kentucky threw its way.
While the score didn’t indicate how tough Auburn played the Wildcats, Kentucky stayed perfect in conference play by downing Auburn 92-72 on its home floor.
Player of the game
T.J. Dunans: 23 points (10-of-20 FG, 2-of-3 3-point FG), 2 rebounds, 1 assist in 36 minutes
Auburn needed a veteran to take over in Lexington, and once again, Dunans was that guy.
The senior guard fearlessly slashed to the rim, particularly during an explosive second-half performance. Dunans was efficient and didn’t hesitate with the ball in his hands, dropping a career-high 23 points and playing a team-high 36 minutes.
The upperclassmen continues to show how important he can be to Auburn’s offensive game plan as the Tigers navigate through the rest of SEC play.
Stat of the game
18 fouls for Kentucky
Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox (averaging 16.7 points per game this season) fouling out and Isiah Briscoe picking up his fourth foul with just under 10 minutes left swung the momentum in Auburn’s favor.
Horace Spencer baited a couple of Wildcat bigs into fouls down low while Ronnie Johnson and Mustapha Heron continued to frustrate Kentucky’s young guards. It seemed like every time Calipari’s team made a run, Auburn would stop it by forcing a whistle. It slowed the game down a bit and allowed Auburn to stay on Kentucky’s heels for a while.
Conversely, one could easily argue that fouls were what became a real problem (one of a few) for Auburn.
There wasn’t exactly one particular moment or score that finished the Tigers.
Junior guard TJ Lang spoke earlier in the week about the difficulties of stopping Kentucky’s scoring runs once the Wildcats start rolling in Rupp Arena. That was the problem for Auburn on Saturday.
The Tigers played hard and kept the score close through the the first 20 minutes. Unfortunately, three starters picked up their third fouls minutes into the second half.
Austin Wiley heading to the bench after being called for his fourth personal foul (right before the 17-minute mark) may have been the closest thing to a turning point which tipped the scales in Kentucky’s favor.
Up next for Auburn basketball
The Tigers return to the Plains for two straight home games in the coming week. First up, Auburn plays LSU on Wednesday night in Auburn Arena (8:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network).
Similarly to Auburn, LSU fared well through its nonconference schedule, but has struggled through its first handful of SEC games. Most recently, LSU was downed by Alabama on Saturday and stands 1-4 in SEC play.
Auburn should have a little extra motivation for what could be deemed a revenge game after falling to LSU 80-68 when the two teams met last season. It’s also an opportunity for the Tigers to get settled and prepared for their looming matchup with in-state rival Alabama next Saturday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN2).