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January 19, 2013
Prime time disappointment
AUBURN -- It was obvious Saturday night.
Kentucky basketball is head and shoulders over Auburn's program.
If anyone needed convincing, it was illustrated plainly in the first half when Kentucky forward Nerlens Noel launched himself over Auburn guard Frankie Sullivan for an alley-oop dunk to put Kentucky up 16 with 12 minutes remaining.
Noel's knees were above Sullivan's shoulders -- an apt image of the hierarchy between the two programs.
After trailing Kentucky by five points at halftime, the Wildcats sprinted past Auburn during the second half and handed Tony Barbee his more lopsided home loss. Transition offense fueled an early second-half run that snapped Kentucky out of their first-half shooting slump en route to a 75-53 victory in front of a sell-out crowd at Auburn Arena.
The lights blinded Auburn. Kentucky was used to the intensity.
"Scared, just plain scared point blank and simple, that's all it was," Sullivan said. "You can't beat anybody playing like that."
What spooked Auburn? Amid many choices - the royal blue and white of the opposing jerseys, the bevy of five-star prospect looming across the court, the grandeur of the most storied basketball program in the SEC - Auburn's leading scorer chose all of the above.
"I don't know, the moment," Sullivan said.
Even Auburn's home crowd affected some of the players. Senior Rob Chubb said the basket shrank for some of the players due to pressure of playing in front of a capacity crowd, even when the majority of those in attendance were wearing the home team's colors.
"Some of these guys hadn't played in front of a packed house like this, so it was a little bit of a shell shock," Chubb said.
The rims appeared small on both ends of the court during the first half - the teams shot a combined 23-62 from the floor in the opening 20 minutes - but Kentucky didn't let the cold shooting carry over to the second half.
The Tigers finished the game 0-for-15 from three-point range. Yet Barbee said he was satisfied with shot selection.
"I will take every look we got tonight all over again, and let's play the game all over again," Barbee said. "Not to say we'd come out with a win, but we'd have a different result offensively."
Auburn's defense broke down in the second half. Even when stops were made, the offense couldn't convert. That drained the Tigers mentally and physically.
"We can't get stop after stop after stop then not convert on the other end," Sullivan said. "You're never going to win if you can't hit shots after getting a good stop."
Kentucky head coach John Calipari didn't think tonight was an indictment on the state of Auburn's program. On the contrary, Calipari saw a team that fully has conformed to what Barbee has been teaching - something Calipari doesn't always see with his own team.
"He doesn't have to coach effort anymore," Calipari said. "Early in the year, that was not the case. That's why I'm proud of what he's doing here. He has well defined each guy and how they are playing. That is why they will win a ton of games. They hit us on a bad night, and they couldn't make a shot. It is nothing more than that."
Even if Calipari believes tonight was a blip on Auburn's radar, the talent gap between the two programs was apparent.
Noel, a freshman, finished with 10 points, nine rebounds and seven blocks. The only thing that stopped him was foul trouble.
Sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer served as the point man for Kentucky's offense. The 6-foot-9 sophomore scored 17 points and found several cutters for baseline dunks from the high post when attacking Auburn's zone defense.
Auburn had been without two of its most dynamic scorers for the past four games. Freshman Jordan Price and junior Chris Denson had both suffered stress fractures in their feet in December, but both returned to the floor against Kentucky. Production didn't follow. The two guards combined for zero points on 0-for-6 shooting in 19 minutes of play. Freshman guard Shaquille Johnson had started 12 games this season, but sat out the first half for disciplinary reasons. Johnson logged 14 minutes in the second half, but had more fouls than points.
Still, Barbee said his team has too much fight and grit to let this loss roll over into the rest of conference play.
"We can't let this one loss here affect what we've built," Barbee said. "One blip on the radar doesn't affect who you are."
Auburn (8-9, 2-2) resumes play Wednesday at Vanderbilt.