A second half barrage lifted the Kentucky Wildcats (6-13, 5-7 SEC) over the visiting Auburn Tigers (11-11, 5-8 SEC) for their 19th straight win over Auburn in Rupp Arena. The Tigers still have not beaten Kentucky on the road since 1988, this time falling by a score of 82-80.
The last 20 minutes of the game were a perfect storm, from the Wildcats making 53% of their shots to attempting 17 free throws in the second half alone. Auburn as a team had just ten shots from the line over the entire game.
"You can't give up 52 points in a half and expect to win a basketball game," Coach Bruce Pearl said after the loss. Auburn is now 1-3 in its last four SEC games.
Allen Flanigan and JT Thor came alive in the game after largely struggling since the loss to Baylor on January 30th. Flanigan totaled 23 points on 8 made shots.
"We ask a lot of [Flanigan]..." said Coach Pearl, "It's really a great thing for him and his development, and he's really productive." Flanigan did turn the ball over 5 times for the third game in a row, but he was still a massive chunk of the Tiger offense, being one of only three players to score in double figures.
JT Thor led all scorers and put up a career performance, tallying 24 points on just 11 total shots. He sank five of his six attempts from 3-point range, hauled in 9 rebounds, and made three clutch free throws to give Auburn a chance at a game-winning play.
"He's one of my best NBA prospects, because he has the ability to elevate his game..." Pearl said of Thor. "You have 24 [points] and 9 [rebounds] as a freshman in Rupp, that's pretty good... He's a great teammate too. He's so unselfish."
Thor, who Pearl described as "one of the funnier guys in the locker room," said he didn't lose confidence in the wake of three rocky games on the offensive side of the ball. "I shoot [three-pointers] a lot... before practice, after practice, I feel like the work is paying off." Before Saturday's game, he was 0-for-7 from deep over the last three games.
Bruce Pearl echoed that. "His confidence was never, ever a factor."
Sharife Cooper struggled in the game, finishing with 14 points on 6/23 shooting. He wasn't able to get to the free throw line once, which could've ended up being the difference in a two-point loss. In terms of shooting, Auburn's two games against Kentucky have been Cooper's toughest.
Ultimately, the narrative of the game shifted in the first four minutes of the second half, an area was Auburn has noticeably struggled all season long. The Wildcats scored 17 points before the under-16 media timeout. "[The defense] wasn't very good in the second half. That's on us. Too many open shots... When Kentucky makes 11 threes, they're hard to beat."
Auburn had the opportunity to complete its first season-sweep of Kentucky in program history. Unfortunately, history will have to wait until next time. Auburn is, however, 5-5 in its last ten games against Kentucky.
The Tigers return home for a meeting with Mississippi State next Tuesday before a major road match with LSU next Saturday.