AUBURN, Ala. – John Calipari often jokes that he hasn’t been wrong since 1978 or 1977. If that truly is the case, his unbelievable steak ended Saturday night in Auburn, Ala.
Just a game after saying his team wasn’t capable of being up 20 on anyone and wasn’t going to “whomp” on anyone this year, the Wildcats proved him wrong by smashing Auburn 75-53 in front of Auburn’s first sellout crowd of the year.
“Did I say that?” Calipari said with a sly smile on his face, knowing full well it motivated his team. “Wow!”
The Cats heard what Coach Cal said and did plenty of “whomping” on the Plains of Auburn without their biggest piece, Willie Cauley-Stein, who was back home in Lexington to get treatment on his injured left knee.
As it turns out, no Cauley-Stein, no problem.
Without the 7-footer, and with Nerlens Noel saddled in first-half foul trouble, sophomore Kyle Wiltjer posted his second consecutive 17-point game to lead UK (12-5, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) in the first game of a difficult road stretch.
While Kentucky struggled to hit perimeter shots in the first half – the Cats missed their first nine 3-pointers – Wiltjer kept UK afloat with a couple interior jumpers and an ice-breaking 3. Twice he hit his teammates on slick passes, including a backdoor bounce pass to Alex Poythress and a sweet no-look flick to a streaking Archie Goodwin.
Both resulted in dunks and both set the stage for a convincing second half.
“He’s playing better,” Coach Cal said of Wiltjer. “He wants it. He’s playing more aggressive. There’s no tentativeness to his game, and that’s how I want him to play.”
Cailpari really liked how Wiltjer got inside Auburn’s zone and buried a key jumper when UK was settling for 3s. He also praised him for mixing it up on the boards when Kentucky was forced to go small.
The Cats have been slow to start the second half this season, but that wasn’t the case Saturday night.
After a quiet first half, Ryan Harrow got it going after halftime with eight points in the first six minutes. The sophomore point guard was one of five Wildcats in double figures, finishing with 12 points, eight assists and five rebounds.
Harrow’s jumper at the 14:02 mark stretched UK’s lead to 48-35, and that’s when the Cats truly stepped on the gas pedal. From that point forward, Kentucky showed signs of dominance that has been missing this season, posting a 17-2 run at one point and sending the a raucous “orange-out” crowd at Auburn Arena home early.
“Coach talks about that with us all the time, that every time we play in a gym it’s sold out, (whether) we’re playing at home or we’re playing away,” Harrow said. “We’re basically used to that. When we’re playing away, we’ve got to be able to take the crowd out of it because the crowd can help the home team. I think that’s what we did today. We had the lead and we kept the lead, and then we got big lead and they were out of it basically.”
Auburn’s players said they played scared and tentative, which snowballed into a deficit they could never recover from. The Tigers failed to connect on any of their 15 3-point attempts, the first time UK has held an opponent without a 3-pointer since Feb. 10, 2001 against Mississippi State.
“They fed off of our lack of confidence,” Auburn head coach Tony Barbee said. “You can easily give a team more confidence and aggression, and I think we did that tonight.”
As much as Auburn struggled, the Cats seemed to click with their backs against the walls.
After struggling in their first three SEC games, there were more smiles, more enthusiasm and more effort Saturday night. For a team that’s struggled so mightily this year to put its foot on the opposition’s throat, UK didn’t hesitate to “whomp” Auburn when the Tigers’ legs started to wobble.
“We just kind of huddled together and just said that we need to start burying teams because in the past we’ve kind of played around with them,” Wiltjer said. “We did a good job executing down stretch and kind of getting easy baskets.”
The 22-point beating marked the worst loss of Barbee’s home career at Auburn.
“We made strides,” Coach Cal admitted.
Particularly encouraging was UK’s rebounding effort. Without their 7-footer and without Noel for nine minutes in the first half, the Cats still managed to out-rebound Auburn 43-30.
“We can play that way,” Calipari said. “Kyle can do it, Alex can do it and Archie can do it. You have three guys with pretty good size.”
Two Cats, specifically, stepped up their effort on the glass. Goodwin grabbed seven rebounds to go along with 12 points while Alex Poythress grabbed another seven.
“Alex showed what we’re trying to get him to,” Coach Cal said. “He’s not all the way there yet. There’s some plays I want him to go up and dunk the ball instead of laying them in and he missed a couple of them, but again, he goes for 12 points and seven rebounds as a freshman, 6 of 8 from the line, and I want more.”
Of course, Noel led the Cats in rebounding once again, as he’s done virtually all season long. Without his twin-tower teammate to take some of the pressure off him, he flirted with a triple-double with 10 points, nine boards and seven blocks.
He was limited to 25 minutes because of foul trouble, but that didn’t slow him from quite literally dunking over an Auburn Tiger in the second half while swatting six or more shots for the third consecutive game.
Noel held his ground against Rob Chubb, who scored 14 points and eight rebounds against Anthony Davis last year. That type of game was good enough for Noel to earn some favorable comparisons to his predecessor.
“Nerlens is a terrific player,” Caliapri said. “We need him to stay out of foul trouble, we need him on the court. He helps everybody because you can’t just drive now because he’s back there and we will block it.”
The win seems to have fully put that Texas A&M loss behind the Cats while dismissing any talk that this team can’t dominate someone, but Coach Cal was most pleased with how his team competed.
“These guys will defined by how much effort, how much fight, how much competitive spirit they have 10 years from now,” Calipari said. “They’re not going to care how many games did the guy win in his career. That’s now what they talk about. They’re going to talk about his competitive spirit, how hard he played, how tough he was, and that’s what we’re trying to get through to these guys. The winning and losing will take care of itself, but at the end of the day, they will define themselves by that effort and toughness.
“I’d like to get to the point where I’m not coaching effort. We’re getting closer, hopefully.”
Gut check: Noel steps up in crunch time for much-needed victory