The trip to Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky, for Auburn basketball, had resulted in a road loss to Kentucky every time since 1988, and Saturday was no different. Despite a career performance by JT Thor, the Tigers fell 82-80 for its 19th consecutive loss inside Rupp Arena.
Auburn never trailed in the first half and took a six-point lead into halftime, but was outscored 52-44 by the Kentucky offense in the second. Kentucky led by as many as 14 and Auburn mounted a late comeback, but a 3-pointer by the Wildcats’ Davion Mintz with 33 seconds left was the nail in the coffin.
“Very disappointing,” said head coach Bruce Pearl. “You can’t give up 52 points in a half and expect to win a basketball game, let alone making history. Kentucky made shots. They outplayed us and as a result, they get the victory.”
Auburn’s offense started 50% from the field, knocking down five of its first 10 shots, including a trio of 3-pointers. It seemed only fitting that the first 3-point shot to go down from the Tigers came from Thor, to put Auburn up 5-0.
Hailing from Anchorage, Alaska, the freshman scored a career-high 24 points in the loss while tying a career-high nine rebounds. Thor shot 8-of-11 from the field including 5-of-6 from beyond the arc and was a perfect 3-of-3 from the charity stripe.
“Obviously he shot the ball great,” Pearl said. “You have 24 and nine as a freshman in Rupp? That’s pretty good. He had great effort and energy. He’s got that next level stuff. I’m proud of him. He’s a hard worker and he’s very unselfish as a person and as a player.”
For Thor, he let the game come to him on Saturday.
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“Just trying to not put pressure on myself to make plays,” Thor said. “Just let the game come to me and if you’re open you shoot it. Don’t care about the makes and misses.”
Meanwhile, Kentucky struggled to find the basket to start the game, missing their first eight shots from the field. Kentucky didn't score from the field until over four minutes had passed by and its first seven points came off of five Auburn turnovers.
Turnovers were problematic for the Tigers early in the first half, committing nine in the first 20 minutes. Kentucky capitalized on it, scoring 11 points in the first 11 minutes off of Auburn turnovers. The Tigers finished the game with 17 turnovers.
Yet despite the turnovers, the Tigers were able to maintain their lead for all of the first half and never trailed. Controlling the glass played a large role in Auburn’s first-half success, out-rebounding Kentucky 24-18 in the first.
Leading the first-half charge for the Tigers was freshman guard Sharife Cooper, who had scored a season-low 11 points in the game against Kentucky earlier this season. He nearly matched that in the first half alone, dropping nine points while recording five rebounds and three assists.
Auburn led 36-30 at the midway point.
While the Kentucky offense had begun slowly to start the game, the same could not be said about the second half. The Wildcats opened on an 8-2 run to tie the game at 38 before Cooper drained a three for Auburn to regain the lead, 41-38. The three from Cooper was one of just two second-half buckets from the Georgia native. He finished with 14 points, six rebounds and eight assists.
What then ensued for Kentucky was a quick and explosive surge of offense, scoring nine straight points in less than two minutes. What ended up being a 17-5 run to start the second half didn’t just give Kentucky the lead, it extended it to 47-41 and Pearl was forced to call a timeout.
“[Defense] wasn’t very good in the second half,” Pearl said. “That’s on us, too many open shots. When Kentucky makes 11 threes, they’re hard to beat. I don’t think there was much that they did that surprised us, they hurt us a little bit in the high-low ball.”
The Wildcats continued to show its physicality with a couple of put-back dunks and pushed its lead out to as many as 14 in the second half. The second-half charge was led by Brandon Boston Jr., who scored 14 of his 17 points in the second.
“In the beginning of the game we played good defense, we played tight defense,” Thor said. “In the start of the second half, we got sloppy. I feel like it’s been something we need to get tighter on the last couple of games, starting the second half stronger.”
Down double digits, Thor and the Tigers climbed their way back into the game. Auburn sped the game up, caused turnovers and got to the free-throw line while Thor continued to do what he had done all game: knock down shots.
“If you look at how we played at the end of the game, we played like our hair was on fire,” Pearl said. “That’s how our teams play best. This young team has not learned that lesson yet and the season is almost over.”
Thor’s 15 points down the stretch and Flanigan’s 15 second-half points helped Auburn tie the game at 77 with 46 seconds remaining. On the ensuing Kentucky possession, Mintz lined up for a three and drained it to give the Wildcats a 3-point lead.
Auburn was unable to score from the field again, but Thor added three free-throws late to push him to 24 points and make him Auburn’s leading scorer. Flanigan finished second in scoring for the Tigers, just behind Thor with 23 points.
“Al [Flanigan] was so productive offensively,” Pearl said. “Able to score through contact, every three-ball he took he looked good. He did a lot of great things. He's a workhorse for us. I still want him to take better care of the basketball. We ask a lot of Al and I love the fact that he gets to do so much for us. It’s a really great thing for his development and he’s really productive.”
Pearl and the Tigers will return home and host Mississippi State on Tuesday, Feb. 16. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU and is set to tip-off at 8 p.m. CST.
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