AUBURN | Bigger was not necessarily better Wednesday night. And that’s been the story for No. 10 Auburn this season.
The Tigers beat a much bigger Kentucky team 76-66 after holding the Wildcats without a field goal for the final 5:01 of the game.
“The last five or six minutes of the game the way Mustapaha (Heron), Anfernee (McLemore) and Desean (Murray) rebounded the ball and defended on the front line — not taking anything away from Bryce (Brown) or Jared (Harper) — but those starters ended the game and the last five or six minutes the way they defended and rebounded won the game for us,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said.
“They all played big. They all played huge. Some of those balls Kentucky put up there including some inside shots could have gone in, but didn’t. We managed to get enough rebounds to allow them to not simply play volleyball in the paint. I’ve never seen a front line at 6-3, 6-5, 6-7 play as big as those guys played in the last six minutes of the game.”
They were facing a Kentucky frontcourt that included 6-9 Kevin Knox, 6-9 Jarred Vanderbilt and 6-9 Wenyen Gabriel.
McLemore had one of his best games of the season with 13 points, 11 rebounds, three steals and two blocks. He continues to lead the SEC with 2.7 blocks per game, and after making 2-of-3 from beyond the arc against the Wildcats, has 18 made 3-pointers this season.
“It was key for us with the way Kentucky was guarding us to be able to step him out and knock down a couple of shots really frustrated him. It’s something we have in our offensive arsenal,” Pearl said.
Auburn came into the game averaging 85.5 points per game, which leads the SEC and is eighth nationally. Auburn shot just 36.7 percent from the floor, partly due to Kentucky’s length, but was able to depend on its defense down the stretch.
“We could score just as well last year as we do this year, but we could never get stops. We couldn’t get stops,” Pearl said. “When Kentucky started to make their runs — at one point in the second half I thought they had a really good run, just they scored, and that’s when they got the lead—this team has been able to get stops. If we can continue to do that, then we can continue to win.”
Pearl said he wanted to do a little celebrating with his staff after only the second win over Kentucky in 21 games, but instead woke up early to a good cup of coffee and quickly turned his attention to Saturday’s game at South Carolina.
“My cup of coffee this morning tasted better than anything I would have had to drink last night,” Pearl said. “Taking care of the basketball is going to be vital against South Carolina ... They force the second-most turnovers to us as far as how they defend and they do a great job in their transition offense as well. We’ve got to take care of the ball and handle their pressure.”
Tip-off at Colonial Life Arena is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. CT on SEC Network.