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
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