Facing an SEC opponent for the third time this season with a Final Four berth on the line, the Cats couldn’t get it done against the Auburn Tigers, who will be taking a trip to Minneapolis to compete for the title. The Tigers won 77-71 in overtime to make it happen.
With Auburn’s NBA prospect Chuma Okeke down with a torn ACL from Friday’s game against North Carolina, the Cats had the personnel advantage to exploit early. In the first half, UK’s interior players (Reid Travis, PJ Washington and Keldon Johnson) drew all 10 fouls against the Tigers. Forwards Austin Wiley, Danjel Purifoy and Horace Spencer all picked up two fouls, while guard Malik Dunbar had three before halftime.
UK’s defense started by locking the Tigers down. The Tigers missed their first six shots, and 10 out of their first 13. The Cats exploited this with 15 first-half points from PJ Washington, fresh off a foot injury that sidelined him until last game.
UK led by as much as 11 in the first half, but that lead evaporated in a hurry as Auburn guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper started attacking the Kentucky defense. Harper pushed the Tigers in transition, getting several late layups on his way to eight first-half points.
In the second half, the three-point barrage that the Tigers are known for came to life from Bryce Brown. The senior guard made several threes to give Auburn a small lead early in the second half, and thus began the tight race for a Final Four spot all the way to the end.
Brown carried the Auburn offense in regulation, finishing the game with 24 points on 8-12 shooting, including 4-7 from three. Every time the Cats grabbed momentum, Brown would hit another three or mid-range jumper to give Auburn another lead.
The scoring wasn’t fast-paced after the beginning of the half, either. Both teams traded baskets, and nobody led by more than six over the last ten minutes of the game. Auburn packed the paint defensively to make UK shoot jumpers, and it worked – UK was only 5-21 from the three-point line.
As Auburn held a narrow lead down the stretch, it was a putback by PJ Washington that eventually sent the game into overtime. The next three combined possessions were misses, including an open three by Spencer at the buzzer.
In OT, the Tigers applied pressure first. They took a four-point lead in the first two minutes, and never looked back. The lead was up to six with under a minute to go, thanks to Harper’s 12 overtime points to give him 26 on the game.
UK’s season ends in the Elite Eight, as it did two seasons ago.