In crunch time, Jared Harper made the right call, according to his head coach.
With under 10 seconds to play, down 81-80, Jared Harper went to his left and got past Kentucky freshman guard Ashton Hagans. Wildcats forward PJ Washington was waiting at the rim, but by that point, Harper’s runner was already in the air. Washington elected to step away and prepare for the box-out.
Harper kissed the ball high off the glass. It bounced off the backboard, landed on the rim, bounced around twice more, then began its descent back to the hardwood. Horace Spencer, who was wearing a nameless No. 55 jersey because he bloodied up his standard No. 0 after a hard fall minutes prior, couldn't control the offensive board.
A miss. Kentucky won, 82-80. Auburn’s 11-game home win streak was over with just its second loss in the past 26 outings at Auburn Arena.
"He got a great look,” said Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl about Harper’s shot. “He took it downhill, the ball rolled around and didn't go in. I'll take that. He made the play on his own. I'll take that look any time."
Harper was centimeters from his second go-ahead bucket in the final 40 seconds — and he knew it.
“I knew when I was able to get by him that I had the angle,” Harper said. “I feel like when I shot it, I put it in the right place on the backboard. It just didn't go in.”
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Pearl repeatedly defended the play postgame.
“He had a great look,” Pearl said. “Just take it downhill. He had a great look. He got a great look, you know?"
However, minutes prior, those crammed into the press area, which was brilliantly lit with network cameras all prepared to inform their viewers about what could have been the game of the year in college basketball thus far, were told how the final shot was schemed up during Pearl’s final timeout on the floor.
The ball was supposed to end up in the hot hands of the top shooter in the gym Saturday — senior guard Bryce Brown, who played a near-perfect second half with 25 points on 7-for-7 shooting from the field, a 5-for-5 mark from 3-point range and a 6-for-6 clip from the free-throw line.
But as the play developed in real time, Kentucky had an answer for Brown for the seemingly the first time in the final 20 minutes.
“Yeah, I was just working on trying to get open with the screen,” Brown said. “But they kind of read it and took it away.”
The Wildcats’ Tyler Herro can be credited with what might have been the defensive play of the night, though it’s not one that will go down in the stat sheet.
As Harper danced with Hagans at the top of the key, Brown swung his way on the wing. Harper began his drive, but first looked to Brown beyond the arc — ready to pass to the game’s leading scorer for a game-winner.
But Herro clogged the passing lane, staying in front of Brown and even darting for a would-be steal as Harper accelerated to the paint. Herro quickly dropped back to smother Brown again in case of a long rebound.
Pearl noticed the defense, too, so much so that he saw Herro as a bigger wing defender than he actually is.
“I think Keldon and (Herro’s) ability at guard, at 6-6, 6-7, whatever they are, was a factor,” Pearl said.
Herro is listed on the official Kentucky roster at 6-foot-5.
Brown said that while Kentucky was able to stifle the long-ball when it mattered, the Wildcats' defense “probably wasn’t good enough” for the Tigers to have lost.
UK’s veteran head coach knew that, too.
"When you have a team that makes threes like this, they're never out of the game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said of Auburn’s 17-point comeback in the second half. “We're lucky to get out of here alive."
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