“Smile. What do you want this picture to look like?” John Calipari said he told his players throughout practice following their heartbreaking loss to Arkansas. They’re sure to be doing so tonight after finally returning to a winning path by beating Auburn 82-80 on Saturday afternoon.
Another slow start haunted the Cats out of the gate. Kentucky didn't get on the scoreboard until the 16:11 mark when Isaiah Jackson sunk two free throws. Jackson threw down a crowd-igniting dunk on the ensuing possession for Kentucky's first field goal make, which came nearly five minutes in.
B.J. Boston's three steals in the first six minutes helped keep the Tigers from finding a rhythm early, helping set the tone despite seeing limited time due to foul trouble. The Wildcat defense led to offense, with 11 of Kentucky’s 30 first-half points coming off turnovers.
Auburn led by as much as nine points in the opening twenty minutes, but Kentucky willed its way back to within six at intermission.
The Cats rallied quickly to begin the second half, tying the game at 38 via back-to-back three-pointers from Boston and Davion Mintz. More treys followed, with another Boston deep ball capping a 15-3 run that forced Auburn to call timeout. All of a sudden, Kentucky had a 55-45 lead with 13 minutes to go in regulation.
Behind Jackson and Olivier Sarr’s presence down low on both ends of the court and excellent three-point shooting, the Cats extended their lead to 14 at one point.
But the Tigers didn’t fall down easy, climbing back to within six by the under four media timeout on the back of second and third-chance opportunities. They pulled down a whopping 20 offensive rebounds on the day, eventually knotting the score with 46 ticks remaining.
That’s when Mintz answered with arguably Kentucky’s most-clutch shot of the year, nailing a three-pointer to put the Cats up 80-77 with 33 seconds to go. It was the second huge make by the grad transfer, who hit the game-winning shot in the Vanderbilt win.
“That’s a big play for this team,” Calipari said. “[And] a big play for Davion.”
Jackson blocked Auburn star Sharife Cooper’s layup on the ensuing possession to secure the Kentucky victory. He told reporters he wasn’t shocked to see his squad continue grinding because of what they are.
“We’re a good team,” he said. “We know, deep down inside, that we put in a lot of work. And it’s finally starting to pay off.”
Kentucky shot 27-for-63 (46%) from the field and 11-of-24 (48%) from behind the arc. Jackson (18 points), Boston (17) and Brooks (12) all scored in double figures.
The Cats snapped their two-game Rupp and three-game overall winless stretch with the win, their first of February. Had they lost, the three-game skid at home would have been the longest ever for the team at Rupp Arena. The loss kept Auburn winless inside Rupp since 1988.
Kentucky’s next matchup comes in Nashville this Wednesday, where it will take on the Vanderbilt Commodores for a second time. Tip is set for 7:00 p.m. E.T. on SEC Network.