AUBURN, Ala. — When opponents walk into the 23,500-seat Rupp Arena, it’s hard not to notice all the blue banners in the rafters. Then, of course, there’s the difficulty of playing whatever group of likely first-round NBA draft picks coach John Calipari puts on the floor at tip-off.
But when Auburn walked into the historic venue on Saturday afternoon, the Tigers weren’t thinking about Kentucky’s 56 NCAA tournament appearances (17 Final Four trips) or their eight national titles.
Instead, Bruce Pearl’s team remembered last January’s meeting, during which Auburn downed the Cats 75-70 on the Plains. Next, the Tigers focused on the simple similarities between the two teams.
“They put their shoes on just like we put our shoes on,” senior guard T.J. Dunans said. “We were just trying to come out and get a win.”
Sparked by Dunans’ career-high 23 points, Auburn had one of its better starts of the season against the Wildcats on Saturday. The Tigers fearlessly attacked Calipari’s group, chipping away at small leads Kentucky built by with its scorching first-half 3-point percentage (at one point Kentucky was nearly 80 percent from the floor).
At halftime, Pearl’s squad went to its locker room down 12 points and 20 minutes from, as Pearl would say on Auburn’s postgame radio show, “shocking the world.”
Perhaps even more startling was Auburn’s belief it had a chance, despite losing three of its first four SEC games, to be the third team to defeat the Cats this season and just the second to get a win in Rupp.
Dunans continued slashing to the rim and scored 15 of his points in the second half (he even went on a 12-5 run of his own against Kentucky that cut the lead to 60-54). Freshmen Mustapha Heron contributed 11 total points while Jared Harper added 8 of his own. And the positives didn’t just come in the form of scoring.
For the most part, Auburn’s Austin Wiley held his own against Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo until the freshman center picked up a couple of puzzling foul calls early in the second half, forcing him to the bench with four fouls with 17 minutes left.
“The great advantage of having Austin Wiley is Austin could cover Bam down there by himself,” Pearl said after the 92-72 loss. “And there aren’t many guys in the SEC that can do that.”
Eventually though, Auburn was worn down by Kentucky’s onslaught of scoring power.
Adebayo totaled 15 points, freshman Malik Monk scored a game-high 24 points while De’Aaron Fox and Isiah Briscoe scored 13 and 10 points, respectively. Supporting characters like Mychal Mulder, a senior guard, had 12 points, nearly doubling his 6.6-point average.
In addition to shooting 57 percent from the field, the Wildcats outrebounded Auburn by 12 and caused problems in transition. The Tigers made a few too many mistakes, had shots swatted and were slowed by 31 total personal foul calls.
Kentucky extended its 6-point lead through the final eight minutes of regulation, but Auburn earned a bit of respect from Calipari and those watching both in Lexington and at home in Alabama with its aggressive play.
“It was a tough place to play and it matters if you can beat John Calipari at Kentucky,” Pearl said.
A win eluded Auburn on Saturday, but it was a significant step — for this year’s group and the program — for the Tigers to challenge Kentucky as they did.
“It builds our confidence from here,” Dunans said. “We did pretty good today, I feel like. It was against Kentucky, one of the top teams in the conference. If we can compete with them, I feel like we can compete with anybody in the SEC.”