Before a festive season-high Rupp Arena crowd of 20,638, the eighth-ranked Wildcats clinched their SEC regular season title with an impressive 73-66 victory over No. 15 Auburn Saturday afternoon.
After falling behind by nine points in mid-first half, Kentucky bounced back with a three-point advantage at the intermission and maintained its lead in the second half, winning eighth straight game to improve its overall record to 24-5 with 14-2 in SEC action.
Thanks to UK’s defense, Auburn, which dropped to 24-5 overall (11-5 in the SEC), struggled big time in the second half with its poor field goal shooting. The Tigers only hit 28.1 percent of their second-half baskets to finish with overall shooting of 36.1 percent. Kentucky entered the matchup leading the conference in field goal defense.
And the free throw shooting obviously was a huge difference between both clubs with the Wildcats hitting 27 of 33 from the line while Auburn shot 13 of 22 free throws.
“We’re obviously disappointed,” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, whose team defeated Kentucky 75-66 on Feb. 1. “I’ll congratulate Kentucky on being regular season champions of our league. I think they’re the best team in our league. They’re the hottest team in our league. They’re physical offensively, they got all the pieces because I thought we played pretty well and in defeat, didn’t shoot as well in the second half as we did in the first half.
“Kentucky played really good defensively and we weren’t able to defend without fouling. They make 27 free throws, we make 22 field goals. We got 22 field goals and nine three’s, and they only have 2 three’s, but we fouled them too much and that was a big deal. Big fact of the game is that we missed free throws.”
SEC Player of the Year candidate and UK guard Immanuel Quickley once again took the scoring honors with a game-high 18 points, including 11 of 11 free throws. The 6-3 guard also snatched a game-high-tying 12 rebounds.
“We had a hard time covering him," Pearl said of Quickley. "We fouled him too much.”
Asked about beating Auburn after losing to the Tigers several weeks ago, Quickley said, “Auburn is a great (team) and you have to give credit where it’s due. We beat them both times last year during the regular season and they beat us when it mattered in the Elite Eight game. You know the regular season (is) great but if we see them again, we have to be prepared for the battle.”
On fouls, Quickley added, “There was a lot of fouling early, a lot of touch fouls. You can never blame a game on the refs, you just have to keep playing. There will be lots of games like that, we felt there were a lot of fouls at Auburn, just two physical teams going at it so we kind of expected the quick whistles and had to adjust throughout the game.
“You know we work on free throws every day in practice. I work on it in my workouts as well and when shots aren’t falling, you know you’re going to need that especially in a tournament game. Sometimes you have an off night and you don’t want that to be the reason you go home.”
UK freshman Tyrese Maxey also poured in 17 points along with seven rebounds and four assists.
On Tuesday night, the Wildcats will play their last home game of the season when they face Tennessee in a 9 p.m. matchup which will be seen on ESPN. It will be Senior Night as the team honors graduate transfer Nate Sestina.
# # #
The 59-year-old Pearl became emotional at the end of his postgame news conference, discussing his early days at NCAA Division II Southern Indiana when he coached the school to a national title. After Saturday's game, he was leaving for Louisville to celebrate a reunion with his 1995 national championship team.
“If I could just take a second and talk about where I’m going right now,” he said. “I have been so blessed to coach a lot of basketball in the state of Kentucky. I was the head coach at Southern Indiana for nine years, right down the road in Evansville, Indiana. All Kentucky’s games were on every night in Evansville on the Evansville stations. It’s a big home of Kentucky basketball, Walter McCarty and all that. I spent nine years in Division II. Northern Kentucky, Kentucky Wesleyan, Southern Indiana, and Bellarmine (were) great (in) Division II basketball.
“In 1995 I went to Louisville, Kentucky and we won a national championship. I’m headed back there tonight, 25 years later to celebrate with my team. Some of those guys are going to be in their mid- 40s with kids and there will be unbelievable stories. I know they’re going to tell about how they made every shot and what a great coach I was, no that’s not true.
"But I just want to say basketball matters here in the state of Kentucky, whether it’s Division I or Division II, so while we’re disappointed that we didn’t win tonight, I want you to write that. 1995 University of Southern Indiana, Division II national champions.”
# # #
During a timeout during Saturday's showdown, there was a huge celebration as the jubilant crowd witnessed Nick Hostetter making the Central Bank Half-Court Shot to win $10,000. A native of Lexington, he graduated from UK in May 2019.
# # #
Former UK star Sam Bowie performed the “Y” cheer in the second half.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime sports columnist in Kentucky, is the author of five books about UK basketball, including “Chasing the Cats: A Kentucky Basketball Journey.” He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com Magazine, and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via email at KySportsStyle@gmail.com