AUBURN, Ala. — After everything that happened on the road a season ago, John Calipari felt helpless as his team fell behind and the same old script began to play itself out.
He looked at his staff and asked a question that he already knew the answer to.
“Are we going to have an easy game this year?” Calipari said. “Like, any? Or are they are going to be like this? They’re all going to be like this. I might as well accept this.”
Accepting is a little easier when you win.
Fighting the same road woes that plagued the Wildcats a season ago, No. 2 Kentucky held off a pesky Auburn squad and overcame a hostile, sold-out crowd of 9,121 at Auburn Arena Wednesday night to win 68-53. Anthony Davis and Doron Lamb scored 14 points apiece and Terrence Jones and Marquis Teague each chipped in with 12 as UK (16-1) picked up its second conference win of the season and first road victory of the year.
A season ago Kentucky mustered just two wins in eight tries in league games away from Rupp Arena. That was largely a different team, but after dropping the first road game of the year at Indiana and falling behind Auburn deep into the second half, those road worries haven’t been alleviated quite yet.
“At one point I looked at the staff and said, ‘This has nothing to do with Xs and Os, boys. We’re going down’ ” Calipari said. “It was probably about 10 minutes to go when I said that to my staff and then we stepped up.”
Before that, Kentucky was being out-hustled and outplayed as Auburn fed off a rabid crowd. Through three-fourths of the game, the much-smaller Tigers were out-rebounding the Cats, one of the nation’s leaders in rebound margin, 31-15.
UK’s big man in the middle stuffed the stat sheet Wednesday night as he recorded 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting, grabbed a team-high six rebounds, blocked four shots and came up with three steals.
Auburn cashed in on the second-chance opportunities and hung around as a result.
“They beat us all to balls,” Calipari said. “Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had one rebound until the last part of the game, and they wanted it worse than we did. They played with a desire we didn’t have. If we don’t understand going in we’ve got to go from start to finish like a team that’s on a mission, we’re going to lose games because every team is going to give us their best shot.”
But, unlike last year, Kentucky found a way in the closing minutes to pull out a gritty victory.
Auburn led 47-45 at the 10:52 mark when Kentucky – slowly – started to pull away. Tied at 47-47 after a Davis tip-in, Teague hit the two decisive field goals of the game in all of places the middle of traffic.
Up until that point, Kentucky had been creamed in the paint, and yet with the game weighing in the balance, Teague, a 6-foot-2 guard, grabbed an offensive rebound in the interior and muscled it over traffic for a bucket. He followed on the next possession with a teardrop in the lane.
After Varez Ward hit a basket, Darius Miller banged in a 3 from the right wing to give UK what would ultimately be a commanding 57-49 lead. From the time the Cats trailed 47-45, they closed out the game on a 23-6 run.
“We just stayed together as a team,” said Lamb, who scored seven of his 14 points in the final five minutes. “We ran our offense very well at the end of the game and executed. We just talked. We all said the plays out loud so everybody could hear them because it was very loud of there. We ran through our plays like Coach said. We do that, good things happen for us.”
UK’s turnaround on the scoreboard can largely be attributed to its reversal on the backboards. Trailing 31-15 on the glass, the Cats grabbed 14 of the final 18 rebounds to pull away.
Auburn head coach Tony Barbee said his team’s zone forced UK’s rebounders away from the basket, but Davis said it was a matter of being more physical.
“It was a great battle inside,” Davis said. “Both teams were really trying but they were really out-hustling us on the boards. … We had to get every rebound when it counted.”
Kentucky overcame 40.7 percent shooting, its third-lowest mark of the year, by forcing 15 Auburn turnovers. The Cats only committed eight of their own.
“It’s a good road win,” Calipari said. “And I would say to the fans of Auburn, is this one of their best performances? Like, by far? You won’t believe this, but we hear that every team that plays us. That’s what they’ll say. … That’s what I’m trying to explain to these players.”
Picking up a win against Barbee, a former player and assistant under Coach Cal, was bittersweet for Kentucky’s head coach.
“I hate this game,” Calipari said. “I’m so happy it’s over and I’m hoping we don’t see each other in the (SEC) tournament. I hope he wins every game. He’s building the building blocks of what he wants and we’ve got to play each other once a year. Hopefully that’s it.”