AUBURN, Ala. — Kentucky coach John Calipari has lamented the pratfalls of working with the youngest team in college basketball all season.
His lamentations almost came to a head Wednesday, but the upside — all of that talent — won out for the No. 14 Wildcats in a 64-56 win over Auburn.
Calipari started five freshmen — guards Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison, forwards James Young and Julius Randle and center Dakari Johnson — and brought two sophomores off the bench, forward Alex Poythress and center Willie Cauley-Stein. Only one other player logged time (senior guard Jarrod Polson).
As talented as those players are — six of the eight were McDonald’s All-Americans — Calipari said lofty expectations shouldn’t overshadow the fact that his team shot about 30 percent and still won on the road.
“I want them to do stuff that probably it’s not fair to ask of all freshmen,” Calipari said. “But that’s my job: to ask for the impossible. That’s why our kids stand out. That’s why they go. We’re asking to do the impossible. That’s what we do.”
The Wildcats (19-5, 9-2 Southeastern Conference) shot 30.8 percent, their worst total this season by a wide margin. It was only their second game this season under 40 percent; they hit just 35.8 percent Nov. 25 in a win over Cleveland State.
Auburn (11-11, 3-8) challenged the Wildcats in the second half on the hot hand of guard Chris Denson. Denson, the league’s leading scorer at 20.2 points per game, scored seven points in a row early in the second half, sparking a 16-4 run that gave the Tigers their first lead, 36-35, with just over 12 minutes to play.
But Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison made a few tough shots in a row at the rim, enough to put the Wildcats over the top. After Aaron Harrison made a layup with 4:13 to play, Kentucky led 50-42, and the Tigers got no closer than six points after that.
“With 10 minutes to go in the game, we had a three-point lead, and from that point forward they made the majority of the winning plays,” Auburn coach Tony Barbee said. “That’s what this game comes down to. We fought hard, too. I thought we played as hard as them, but at the end of the day they made more winning plays. That doesn’t mean they made more shots. They made more winning plays: offensive rebounds, more loose balls, defensive rebounds and some big shots on top of it.”
Kentucky and Auburn both struggled from the field in the first half, but the Wildcats’ physical play produced enough free-throw attempts to boost them to a 28-22 halftime lead. When shots weren’t falling, Randle said every other part of Kentucky’s game was suffering for it.
“We just weren’t playing basketball,” he said. “We weren’t doing what Coach was asking us to do. There just came a point in the game where we just had to let it go and just play.”
The Wildcats did not make a field goal in the final seven minutes of the half, missing their final 10 shots. Of those 10 attempts, six were at the rim — either layups or putback attempts.
Still, Kentucky attacked the basket and was 5 of 8 from the free-throw line in that span.
Auburn wasn’t much better. The Tigers scored on a putback by center Matthew Atewe with 4:15 to go to make the score 23-22, but they did not score for the rest of the half.
Kentucky never trailed in the half and led 18-8 with about 12 minutes to play, but Auburn scored eight straight points to bring the score back within a single possession.
Despite Kentucky’s poor play, its raw talent still overcame. Denson said Barbee, who played for Calipari at Massachusetts in the 1990s and coached on his staff at Memphis in the 2000s, warned his team it would happen if Auburn didn’t pounce when it could.
“We almost let a couple go against Georgia and South Carolina, but you can’t let a Kentucky team have a chance,” Denson said. “Coach Barbee said we gave them hope because when we took the lead, they were timid, but they made a plan and we gave them hope.”
NOTES: C Dakari Johnson started
Alabama fires head coach Grant
Alabama fired head basketball coach Anthony Grant on Sunday after six seasons.
The Crimson Tide struggled over the final two months of the season, finishing 18-14 and tied for eighth in the Southeastern Conference.
Grant, 48, won at least 20 games three times and made an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2012. His Alabama teams went 117-85, including two NIT appearances (2011 and 2013). He came to Alabama from Virginia Commonwealth University, where he went 76-25 and made two NCAA Tournament appearances.
“This has been a very difficult decision, as I have the highest respect for Anthony as a coach, as a molder of young men, and as a person,” Alabama athletic director Bill Battle said in a statement. “Anthony is a man of impeccable character who has been an excellent representative of our program. He has made tremendous contributions to our program and we always will be grateful for his efforts. Anthony, his wife Chris, and their children have been tremendous assets to our University and our community.
“In this business we are ultimately judged by wins and losses on the court and, for a variety of reasons, we haven’t made satisfactory progress in that area.”
Kentucky routs Arkansas for SEC tourney title
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — No. 1-ranked Kentucky will take a perfect 34-0 record into the NCAA Tournament this week after thrashing Arkansas 78-63 in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game Sunday at Bridgestone Arena.
The conference tournament title is the 28th for Kentucky, meaning the Wildcats have won more than half of the 55 tournaments.
“This team has a lot of dog in it,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Good, hard fought game. Arkansas is a ranked team, but we kind of did our thing.”
Junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who was named tournament MVP, paced Kentucky with a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds. It was his first double-double since the Columbia game on Dec. 10.
Cauley-Stein was joined on the all-tournament team by twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison of Kentucky, Michael Qualls of Arkansas and K.T. Harrell of Auburn.
Andrew Harrison, a sophomore guard, scored 15 points. Twin brother Aaron Harrison had 11 points and six assists. Freshman guard Tyler Ulis added eight points and six assists.
Guard Michael Qualls topped No. 21 Arkansas (26-8) with 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Forward Bobby Portis had 13 points.
“Our guys came out and scratched and clawed,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “But at the end, I thought their depth and size were hard to overcome. If a team is going to beat them, you’ve got to make shots as well as match their energy.”
The finals pitted the top two seeds in Kentucky and Arkansas, but the Wildcats wasted little time proving that winning the regular season by five games was no fluke. Kentucky roared out to an 8-0 lead within the first two minutes, forcing Anderson to call an early timeout. Point guard Andrew Harrison scored six of the eight on a pair of 3-pointers.
“If the other team is angry, mad, hateful, jealous, the physiology of that is real close to fear,” Calipari said. “When a team comes in that way, if you can just play and that thing turns into fear, you separate yourself. Joy, the love of playing, always beats angry, mean, hateful, jealous.”
Arkansas managed to score five unanswered points after the break and eventually tied the game at 10-10 on a 3-pointer by Portis. The SEC player of the year had missed 16 of his previous 17 shots in the tournament before the basket.
The game was tied 19-19 with 10:18 to play in the first half when Kentucky caught fire, scoring 16 points in 5:05 for a 35-23 lead. Aaron Harrison scored six points during the 16-4 run on a pair of 3-pointers. He also assisted on two dunks by Cauley-Stein and a basket in the paint by sophomore center Dakari Johnson. Freshman center Karl-Anthony Towns accounted for the remaining four points.
All six Kentucky field goals during the run were accompanied by an assist, including three by Aaron Harrison. At the time, Kentucky was shooting 59 percent (13 of 22), including 5 of 6 on three-pointers.
Kentucky went on to expand the lead to 16 points by halftime, 41-25, meaning the Wildcats outscored Arkansas 22-6 over the final 10:18 of the first half.
Cauley-Stein led the way in the first half with eight points and eight rebounds. Aaron Harrison added eight points and six assists. Andrew Harrison scored six points.
Kentucky shots 51.9 percent in the first half, and 12 of the 14 baskets came via assists. The Wildcats were 8-for-8 from the free-throw line.
Arkansas, which never led, shot just 29 percent in the first half. Portis topped the Razorbacks with seven points. Arkansas had just two assists and five turnovers in the first 20 minutes.
In the second half, Arkansas managed to trim Kentucky’s lead from 16 to nine at 48-39 at the 11:55 mark. During that time, Towns picked up his fourth personal foul with 14:07 to play.
“We cut it to nine points in the second half, but we couldn’t get over the hump,” Anderson said.
From that point forward the two teams battled mostly to a draw before Kentucky pulled away late in the half.
Kentucky pushed the lead back 18 points at 6:10 thanks to an 11-2 run.
Kentucky’s largest lead of the game was 21 points, which came with 2:41 to play.
Wisconsin earns top seed after conference tournament win
CHICAGO — The Wisconsin Badgers earned a historic NCAA top seed Sunday, but their approach going forward will be strictly business as usual.
Wisconsin (31-3) beat Michigan State 80-69 in overtime in Sunday’s Big Ten tournament title game to complete a championship sweep and were rewarded with the first No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed in program history.
“I’m sure it will sink in,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “What we need right now is to get these guys back (home). We have class tomorrow, some of these guys have tests, they’ve got midterms this week. So it will be business as usual for our student-athletes.”
But players like forward Frank Kaminsky, the Big Ten tournament most outstanding player, are pretty pumped up.
“It’s awesome,” Kaminsky said. “First No. 1 seed in program history. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself, but we have a lot of goals and aspirations in the NCAA Tournament. So we’re going to prepare for our first game and be ready we tip the ball up.”
No. 6 ranked Wisconsin, the league’s regular-season champion, claimed the Big Ten’s automatic NCAA berth with the overtime win at the United Center and meets No. 16 Coastal Carolina (24-9) in Friday’s West Region opener in Omaha, Neb.
The overtime outcome was the first in Big Ten tournament history.
Michigan State (23-11) is also tourney bound with a No. 7 seed in the East Region. The Spartans will face Georgia, which is the 10th seed, on Friday in Charlotte, N.C.
Ryan was initially at a loss for words after the Badgers’ dramatic come-from-behind win.
“I’m speechless and that’s hard to do,” he said. “It was the fight in this group, and to do what they did when it seemed like Michigan State couldn’t do anything wrong. I just hope we have something left in us come NCAA Tournament time.”
The Badgers rallied from an 11-point second-half deficit and back into contention late in the game. They then scored 11 unanswered points in overtime behind seven points form forward Nigel Hayes.
Hayes closed with a game-high 25 points and was 12-for-12 from the free throw line. Kaminsky had 19, guard Bronson Koenig finished with 18 while reserve forward Duje Dukan added 11.
Michigan State, making its third title game appearance in four years, was led by forward Branden Dawson and guard Denzel Valentine with 16 apiece while reserve guard Bryn Forbes had 10.
“I thought we played one of the greatest games we’ve ever played for 32, 32 and one-half minutes or 35, 36 minutes,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “And then we made a couple of mistakes and they made a couple of great shots and that’s the way the game goes.”
Wisconsin trailed 57-46 in the second half when Koenig launched a comeback with a 3-pointer and added another with 4:19 left to give the Badgers a temporary 60-59 lead.
“We were down eleven and they thought they had it in the bag,” Koenig said. “But I kept reminding my teammates that we were never going to give up.”
Guard Lourawls Nairn’s 3-pointer then put Michigan State up 62-60 as the teams exchanged leads three times and tied four times. The last in regulation came on Koenig’s two free throws for a 69-69 deadlock.
A potential game-winning shot by Dawson rolled in and out as regulation time expired.
In the first half, Michigan State outscored Wisconsin 10-5 in the final 3:25 for a 32-31 halftime lead after a half that saw with seven lead changes and five ties. The Spartans opened a 32-28 lead after a turnover by Koenig and a rebound put back by forward Marvin Clark with 25 seconds showing. But Wisconsin narrowed the deficit to 32-31 as Kaminsky hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
It was the Badger’s fifth successful shot from beyond the arc in the half. Wisconsin ended 13-of-26 (50 percent) on 3-point shooting for the game.
NOTES: Sunday’s game was tied 13 times and had 14 lead changes. … The Badgers claimed a 68-61 win in March in the long regular season meeting behind F Frank Kaminsky’s season-high 31 points. … The Badgers’ two previous Big Ten tournament titles came in wins over Illinois in 2004 and 2008. … Wisconsin’s 31 wins match an all-time