Home » Kentucky basketball upsets Auburn, adds much-needed Quad 1 win to NCAA Tournament resume

Kentucky basketball upsets Auburn, adds much-needed Quad 1 win to NCAA Tournament resume

AUBURN, Ala. — Bruce Pearl couldn’t hide his exasperation with the framing of the statement during his postgame news conference Saturday night — that the 70-59 loss Kentucky inflicted on Pearl and his Auburn program was “demoralizing” in nature.

“This was not a demoralizing game,” Pearl said. “That’s a good team that played a really good game. What’s demoralizing about a loss to Kentucky when they play well? I can’t even begin to answer that. Do I look demoralized to you? Anybody think I’m demoralized?”

Conversely, after more than a month of middling results, the Wildcats needed a statement win — one that enhanced their NCAA Tournament résumé, an opportunity Saturday represented — in the worst way.

Consider the needle moved.

No. 20 UK went into the tiger’s den that is Neville Arena and took it to No. 12 Auburn. The Wildcats never trailed, and allowed the hosts to tie it only once, in the 11-point victory.

“The guys were energized before the game even started,” said Kentucky senior guard Antonio Reeves, who scored a game-high 22 points (on 8-of-20 shooting) and also posted the contest’s best plus-minus rating (plus-14). “I could see the energy shifted as we were in the locker room talking to one another, just hyped.

“So I was like, ‘OK, this is one of those games. We’re going to play good.'” 

Kentucky (18-7, 8-4 SEC) handed Auburn its first home loss (in 14 games) in 2023-24. It snapped a 16-game winning streak at Neville for the Tigers (20-6, 9-4) dating back to last season — and marked only Auburn’s third home setback in its past 46 outings.

“Kentucky can guard, and they can turn it up when they want to,” Pearl said. “They outplayed us tonight; they played really well. We knew their guards were excellent, and late in the game, when it came down to just getting decent shots and keeping us at bay, they were able to do that.”

For UK, Saturday ended a three-game skid in road bouts against Auburn.

Some of these cited streaks dated back years.

What was far more important for the Wildcats is what the win meant for the present.

Entering Saturday, UK had dropped four straight Quad 1 matchups — and was just 2-5 overall in such tilts, with its most recent triumph coming in the SEC opener Jan. 6 at Florida

Following that victory were four straight high-profile, Quad 1 losses: Texas A&M (in overtime, on the road), South Carolina (in lopsided fashion, on the road), Tennessee (at home, giving up 103 points in the process) and Florida (in overtime, at home).

With each defeat, Kentucky’s projected NCAA Tournament seed trended downward. 

Given the Tigers’ tendency to overwhelm opponents at home, and the Wildcats’ recent struggles, UK coach John Calipari’s club was a heavy underdog prior to Saturday’s tipoff.

Now, the Wildcats have their signature victory of the season: The Tigers were No. 6 in the NET rankings at Saturday’s outset, unseating UK’s previous-best win in terms of a foe’s NET (North Carolina is No. 11, but that nip-and-tuck triumph in December came at a neutral site in Atlanta).

“I’m going to say it was (a win we needed),” sophomore 7-footer Ugonna Onyenso said. “Coming into this game, nobody believed we were going to win this game. … So we came into the game with nothing to lose — that was the mindset we came into the game with.”

That’s not the only mentality the Wildcats armed themselves with Saturday, either.

“We told ourselves if we really want this, we can get it. It all depends on ourselves,” said Onyenso, who pulled down a team-high 11 rebounds (which tied Auburn’s Johni Broome for the game high) and made all three of his shots from the field to finish with seven points. “The coaches can talk however long they want to, but if we don’t lock in defensively and play as one — if we don’t trust each other — we’re not going nowhere.”

Pearl wouldn’t bet against them.

“I really think you just go, ‘All right, (if) Kentucky guards like this? They can beat anybody,'” he said. “But we know that. … They’re a nationally ranked team. They’re a 3- or 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

“They played well, and we didn’t. That’s why we got beat.”

Reach Kentucky men’s basketball and football reporter Ryan Black at rblack@gannett.com and follow him on X at @RyanABlack.