Five takeaways from Auburn's win over Kentucky
The Auburn locker room has the words "Make History" written across the Auburn logo. Saturday, Auburn made history.
With its win over No. 12 Kentucky, Auburn is in a prime spot to get the necessary AP votes to jump current No. 1 Gonzaga in Monday's poll. Auburn also further cemented itself atop the SEC in the regular season title race.
It wasn't easy on Saturday, but Auburn's strong close to end the first half and overall improvements in the second half helped lead Auburn to an 80-71 win over Kentucky.
Takeaways from Saturday:
Depth reigns supreme...
It's been known all along that Auburn's depth and ability to go nine- and even 10-deep is a huge plus for this team. That was the case again on Saturday against Kentucky.
Auburn played nine different players, with no one playing more than K.D. Johnson who had 33 minutes. Kentucky had seven main players, and three play a minute or two. Kellen Grady played all 40 minutes, Oscar Tshiebwe played 38 minutes and Sahvir Wheeler played 36 minutes.
With fresher legs and guys coming off the bench ready to contribute, Auburn took advantage of a tired Kentucky team in the second half.
"I think for us, it's the sum of our parts," Bruce Pearl said. "If we're playing nine guys on a regular basis or sometimes 10, you've got to account for all of them. And I thought we got really great contributions, you know, from everybody."
Big turnaround in the free throw department...
Auburn came into the game struggling to draw a lot of fouls and getting to the free throw line. Pearl stressed during the week that needed to change. Well, it did.
The Tigers drew 20 fouls and shot 29 free throws, hitting 24 of them. 23 of those attempts came in the second half, and Auburn knocked down 21 of them.
Kentucky, on the other hand, shot 10 free throws and made eight of them.
A +16 advantage at the free throw line for Auburn.
Walker Kessler was the most dominant player on the floor...
Walker Kessler wasn't necessarily the best player on the floor, that was Jabari Smith, but Kessler was the most dominant.
The matchup to watch coming into the game was Kessler versus Tshiebwe, the nation's leading rebounder. Kessler has struggled with foul trouble in a few games, and that was a potential cause for concern in this matchup.
Tshiebwe had 16 points and 14 rebounds — a solid performance, but Kessler's 19 points, seven rebounds and two blocks were huge for Auburn. He had seven dunks, and of Wendell Green's five assists, four of them were on lobs to Kessler for a dunk.
"Props to our guards, man," Kessler said. "I mean, they're such good facilitators. Finishing at the rim, you know, looking for the dump-down, looking for the lob, looking for the dish-out to the perimeter. As we just kept going, it was like any other game — everything else started opening up."
Teams have not been able to contain the lobs to Kessler, and Auburn will keep doing it until someone stops it.
"You have to have great screening, great passers, and the best guy in the country that can finish it in the air," Pearl said. There aren't many guys that can do what he can do -- and it's not just because he's 7-feet tall. He's special in the air, offensively and defensively.
"Great hands, and he's not afraid. But we definitely had some opportunities at the rim. It takes spacing and it takes players like Wendell or Zep to be able to get those guys the ball, and Walker to finish."
"We've got No. 10 and you don't"...
Pearl has said it before, but it's worth revisiting pretty much after every game.
"There are nine really good players out there and there are times when we’ve got No. 10 and you don’t," Pearl said.
When Auburn was down big in the first half, Jabari Smith went on a 7-0 run by himself to close the gap. And when Kentucky closed the Auburn lead to four late, Smith hit one of his patented momentum-killing jumpers to push it back to six. Two possessions later he got two Kentucky players to bite on a pump fake and he went under and fed Kessler for an easy dunk.
"It was time for No. 10 to step up and make a couple of big shots and make a couple of big plays," Pearl said. "He’s not afraid of the moment. Jabari knows because he holds himself to a high standard. When it gets to net-cutting time, he ain’t afraid."
And on the defensive side, Smith had a pair of big blocks late against Keion Brooks Jr. and Tshiebwe late to help keep Kentucky from scoring. Smith finished with 14 points, seven rebounds and two blocks against Kentucky.
Not his biggest scoring night, but when he was needed most, he came up big. As per usual.
Jungle City came ready to party...
The Auburn students lined up over a day in advance and once they finally got out of the freezing cold, they were fired up.
The Jungle was fired up and helped create the loudest game in Auburn Arena history.
The crowd was a big part in forcing Kentucky into three shotclock violations over the course of the game.
"The atmosphere is electric, they're loud," Kessler said. "We wouldn't be in the position where we are right now if it wasn't for the fans. Big gratitude on our part to them."
What Pearl officially donned "Jungle City" — the spot where the students camped outside of Auburn Arena, is set to become the new usual for Auburn fans hoping to see one of the top teams in the country.
As for Pearl, he's already working on plans to renovate the plaza and make sure that if fans camp out for games, they'll be well taken care of.
"Now, we did everything we could to feed them and hydrate them. We couldn’t keep them warm. I got some ideas for that, now," Pearl said. "I think we ought to sort of rebuild that plaza out there. It needs to be named — it’s not going to be PearlVille — it’s going to be Jungle City. And Jungle City is going to live right outside Auburn Arena.
"And we’ve got to do some things out there to make that kind of a camping ground a little bit. You know, Auburn’s an outdoorsy place. We’ve got great weather. I just think we should create Jungle City and I bet you I can get a few donors to help me with that project."
Knowing Pearl, Jungle City will be built quickly and it'll be top of the line. Just like Auburn's team.