LEXINGTON, Ky. – Kentucky outlasted Auburn 72-62 on Saturday in a chippy affair at Rupp Arena to extend its season-long winning streak to five games and set up a showdown with No. 2 Florida on Tuesday in Gainesville with a share of the SEC lead on the line.
Just don’t try to sell UK coach John Calipari on it being an important matchup.
“Someone says, well, now you're playing for first place,” Calipari said. “Are you crazy? We've got Florida twice. We've got Missouri here. We've got to go to Arkansas. We've got to go to Georgia. We've got to go to Tennessee. What?
“We're just trying to get better. I'm not worried about first place, second place, fifth place. No, just get better. Play for us, get out of your own self's way so you can now not feel the weight of the world on you, and that's where we're zeroing in on right now.”
The Wildcats got better Saturday against the Tigers, although how much probably won’t be determined until they go toe-to-toe with Billy Donovan’s Gators. Kentucky (17-7, 8-2 SEC) took sole possession of second place in the league after Missouri defeated Ole Miss earlier in the day.
Kentucky again showed impressive offensive balance, placing five players in double figures led by 14 points from sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer. Ryan Harrow and Willie-Cauley Stein each scored 12. Julius Mays and Nerlens Noel added 10 apiece, while Noel also pulled down a game-high 12 rebounds.
Auburn (9-14, 3-7 SEC) kept it closer than the teams’ previous meeting, a 75-53 win by the Wildcats on Jan. 19, by bringing a physical gameplan to Lexington. At times, it went beyond the limits of the rulebook. The Tigers were whistled for 29 fouls, including two flagrant fouls, and saw forward Jordan Granger ejected for throwing a punch at UK’s Archie Goodwin with 1:12 remaining in first half.
Later in the game, Auburn’s Frankie Sullivan was called for an intentional foul after tackling UK’s Wiltjer on his way to a runout basket. The teams nearly came to blows again.
Auburn coach Tony Barbee, a former Calipari player at Massachusetts, called the play “competitive.”
"I'm proud of the way our guys competed," he said. "It's the only way our guys are going to survive, especially against a team as talented and as well-coached as Kenutcky is, so I'm proud of the way that the guys fought.
"I thought our guys played a clean game."
Cauley-Stein begged to differ. The Wildcats' freshman center referred to the tactics as “cheap.”
“I think we handled it really well,” he said. “Coach Cal is good that way. Every game we play is going to be tough like that. (Calipari) keeps on saying that last year, that is what they tried to do, and it didn’t work. This year has got to be the same way, can’t let it get to you.”
“We have gotten used to it, and we use it to our advantage,” Noel said. “We are not a team that’s going to back down.”
Kentucky, which led 37-31 at the half, led by as many as 16 in the second half before Auburn closed with a 10-4 run to make the final margin more respectable.
Calipari said he sees continued growth in his young team.
“Are we getting better? Yeah, we're getting better,” he said. “We're winning games. We're getting better, all that stuff. “
• UK leads the all-time series with Auburn 88-17, including a 45-2 mark in games played in Lexington. The Cats have won 15 consecutive games over the Tigers.
• Calipari’s four-year record at UK improved to 119-20.
• The Wildcats improved to 8-1 on the season when starting Ryan Harrow, Archie Goodwin, Julius Mays, Alex Poythress and Nerlens Noel.
• Reserve guard Jarrod Polson, who was praised by Calipari for his energetic play in 20 minutes of action, hit his first career 3-pointer in SEC play. He finished with three points, three rebounds, two assists and one steal.
• The crowd of 24,253 was UK’s second-largest of the season. It came on a day when the program honored members of the 1978 national championship team during an on-court introduction during a timeout.