Hang onto the ball.
Think about all the good things the Wildcats did in Rupp Arena tonight.
— They shot 52.5 percent (better than 60 percent in the second half) against a team that had allowed only one opponent to shoot better than 45.
— They outscored Auburn 26-2 from the free-throw line.
— They had a 42-22 rebounding edge.
But despite all that, it was still a two-possession game with 2 minutes and change left because of 22 Wildcat turnovers that turned into 22 Auburn points, and nearly half the War Eagles’ second-half points.
As it was, this was a hard-fought and impressive win for UK, which now is the only unbeaten team in the SEC.
Granted, I’m just a guy who watched from home and flipped to check on “Lost” during commercials, but it looks from here like as long as UK doesn’t gift-wrap and give the thing away, it has an outstanding chance to wind up the season as the best team in the SEC. Not by a wide margin, mind you. But no other team in this league has shown the kind of defensive tenacity and offensive efficiency that UK has.
And no other team has a big man like Patrick Patterson, or a scorer like Jodie Meeks. Look at the two-man line tonight. Meeks had 31 points and made 12 of 13 free throws. Patterson had 21 points and a career-high 18 rebounds. And Perry Stevenson played a prototype of the kind of game UK needs from him — 13 points, 12 rebounds.
After Meeks put up a school-record 54 points on Tennessee, I thought Vols coach Bruce Pearl said something very interesting.
“You know, over the past couple of years we had a lot of games where it seemed like all other things were equal between the two teams, but we had No. 5 (Chris Lofton),” Pearl said. “I think Kentucky might be getting into that deal, where all things are equal in a lot of games, but they have No. 23.”
An excellent point. The key sequence of tonight’s game was the start of the second half, when UK showed its greatest intensity on defense and turned a 1-point halftime lead into a 10-point lead. The Cats found Meeks twice for threes in transition, and that got them going.
But it was their defense down the stretch that drew the greatest praise from coach Billy Gillispie. He started switching on the ball screens Auburn was setting on top, and it seemed to slow the tide (forgive the word, Auburn fans) of War Eagle threes.
“It’s a good team,” Gillispie said of Auburn in an interview with Tom Leach of the Big Blue Network produced by IMG. “Eight out of their nine guys they played are juniors and seniors. . . . They did a great job of guarding us. We had 22 turnovers, too many of them, but our guys did a good enough job.”
Good enough for Auburn. And maybe good enough for most SEC opponents. But a UK team that has taken better care of the ball in recent teams can’t slip back into its old charity patterns now, lest it risk handing over first place in the SEC.
The Wildcats also won tonight’s game with little contribution from the bench. UK got only three bench points, and every starter but Porter played at least 35 minutes. It’s not the way Gillispie wants it.
“Our guys are really improving over there (on the bench),” Gillispie told Leach. “But every single time we brought them off, (Auburn) scored. We have to carry out our assignments. You can’t come over and say, ‘Hey, they got me coach.’ … We gave up way too much when those guys came off the bench, and I wasn’t going to let it slip away, this game was too important for us. I want to play more guys, but most importantly, I want to win. I hope some of those guys learn good lessons from this. They’re great kids and really improving, but . . . to get on the court and end games and finish games, you have to really defend like the coach wants you to.”
This is a UK team that does enough things right and has enough weapons that it could win an SEC championship, though it’s very early to talk in those terms. But it won’t take very many wrong things to throw it away in what is shaping up as a pretty evenly-matched conference.
Florida lost to Darrin Horn’s South Carolina Gamecocks at the buzzer. LSU dismantled Mississippi State and Arkansas, after impressive wins over Texas and Oklahoma, is now 0-3 in the league with losses to Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Florida.
“We need to start getting a little more recognition,” Gillispie said to Leach. “And I’m not talking about our team, I’m talking about our league.”
UK’s post-game notes:
- Kentucky is 15-4 overall, 4-0 in the Southeastern Conference.
- The last time Kentucky opened 4-0 in the SEC was in Jan. 2007. With Florida and Mississippi State sustaining losses tonight, UK is the only team undefeated in the SEC.
- Auburn is 11-7 overall, 1-3 in league play.
- Tonight marked the 100th meeting between Kentucky and Auburn in men’s basketball.
- Kentucky leads the series, 83-17, having won the last 10 in a row.
- UK leads 43-2 in games played in Lexington.
- Kentucky returns to action Saturday at Alabama. The game is at 3 p.m. ET (2 p.m. in Tuscaloosa ) and will be regionally televised by Raycom Sports.
- UK used the starting lineup of Michael Porter, Jodie Meeks, Ramon Harris, Perry Stevenson and Patrick Patterson for the fourth-straight game and 10th time this season.
- Jodie Meeks made the first basket of the game at the 19:03 mark, extending Kentucky ‘s streak of 692 consecutive games with a three-pointer.
- Patrick Patterson reached a double-double in the first half with 12 points and 12 rebounds.
- There were six ties and 12 lead changes in the first half.
- Kentucky led 34-33 at halftime when Patrick Patterson blocked a shot, grabbed the ball, and dribbled the length of the court before feeding Ramon Harris for a layup at the buzzer.
- UK is 13-0 this season when leading at halftime.
- Kentucky jumped out with an 8-0 run in the second half …
- Auburn kept chipping away and led 51-48 on a Frankie Sullivan three-pointer with 9:09 remaining.
- Kentucky responded with a decisive 12-0 run for a 60-51 lead. The Wildcats held Auburn scoreless for 5:41 during that stretch. Tay Waller broke the streak with a three-pointer with 3:27 left but Kentucky held on the rest of the way.
- Kentucky held Auburn to 38.8 percent from the field. UK is 14-0 this season when limiting the opponent under 40 percent from the field.
- UK shot 52.5 percent from the field, the 11 th time this season the Wildcats have made at least half their shots.
- Kentucky dominated the rebounding, 42-22. The +20 margin is UK’s second-largest of the season.
Individual game notes
- Jodie Meeks led all scorers with 31 points.
- It is his sixth 30-point game of the season.
- Meeks has made multiple three-pointers in 13 straight games.
- Patrick Patterson totaled 21 points and a career-high 18 rebounds.
- It is his 10th double-double of the season, most in the SEC.
- It is his 16th career double-double, tying him for 20 th in UK history.
- Perry Stevenson totaled 13 points and 12 rebounds, his second double-double of the season and fifth of his career.