Injuries to Washington, Wheeler hurt Cats’ chances in loss to No. 2 Auburn

Published 12:44 pm Sunday, January 23, 2022

Kentucky gave Auburn everything it had, even without one of its top players.

The Wildcats (15-4, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) kept it close without second-leading scorer, TyTy Washington for most of the game, but failed to cool off the red-hot Tigers, who notched their 15th consecutive victory with an 80-71 victory Saturday at Auburn Arena. No. 2 Auburn (18-1, 7-0) remained undefeated in the league nearly at the halfway mark of the conference campaign.

Washington went down with an apparent ankle injury with eight minutes remaining in the first half and didn’t return as Auburn snapped Kentucky’s four-game winning streak. Kentucky coach John Calipari didn’t know the extent of Washington’s injury. His absence was felt especially by his teammates in the second half as the hosts rallied from a 10-point deficit to defeat the Wildcats.

“Obviously you can’t ignore that,” said Kentucky guard Kellan Grady, who led the Wildcats with 17 points and connected on four of his team’s seven 3-pointers. “They are the best team and we didn’t have our entire team, but even with that said, we had our opportunities. That was a winnable game and I think we should have won the game, but they made more plays, more crucial plays. “

Calipari said not having Washington hindered the Wildcats’ inability to tame the Tigers, especially late in the second half, but also criticized the team’s overall defensive performance.

“That hurt us, but no excuses, we had our chance to win,” he said. “We had breakdowns defensively.”

Those breakdowns came mostly in the final eight minutes of the first half and spilled over into the second half, but the Wildcats were within 68-64 with three minutes remaining. However, Kentucky couldn’t match a first-half spree, where it scored 13 unanswered and built a 17-7 lead early in the contest. That lead fell to four at 33-29 at the break.

“We did some good stuff,” Calipari said. “We lose a tough game on the road in this environment, no one gave us a chance. I love how we started the game. We were the aggressor. We were the team that was really running good stuff. I hated the end of the half, hated it.”

Along with Washington, Kentucky point guard Sahvir Wheeler played limited minutes after running into a screen in the first half and again bumping into Walker Kessler on an offensive play late in the contest. Grady and Davion Mintz filed the void and admired the team’s ability to remain within striking distance.

“It shows how good of a team we are and there’’s a reason why this was such a hyped-up game,” he said. “It was a dogfight even though they ended up winning by nine but it was a close game for 30 minutes. It’s no secret that we’re one of the best teams in the country. I think that’s well recognized around the basketball world … we’’re trying, we want to be best in March.”

Oscar Tshiebwe followed Grady with 16 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots, while Wheeler scored 17.

Auburn is poised to take over the No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press Top-25 poll when the rankings are released Monday. The Wildcats are chalking the loss up as another learning experience, especially while playing on the road.

“You don’t win a championship in January,” Grady said. “We’ve got to learn from this. We hope to see them again.”

The Tigers, who have matched the highest ranking in program history, are hoping to move up to the top spot for the first time. Fans chanted No. 1 in the final moments, hoping their team will supplant Gonzaga.

“Sometimes it’s hard to have such high expectations be lived up to,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “But I don’t think there’s any question that that game and that environment lived up to anybody’s expectations.”

Gametracker: Mississippi State at Kentucky, 9 p.m., Tuesday, TV/Radio: SEC Network, UK Radio Network.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at Keith.taylor@kentuckytodaycom and via Twitter at keithtaylor21.